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César Aira: Las conversaciones (Conversations)

Our unnamed narrator has taken early retirement. One of the consequence of this is that he finds difficulty in sleeping, as he is no longer tired by his job. While lying in bed, what he does is run through conversations he has had with his friends. These conversations may be actual conversations or imaginary conversations, embellishments or additions to actual conversations. Indeed, he later says these conversations are now the most important thing in his life. He has a wide range of intelligent and intellectual friends and they tend to discuss serous matters such as history and philosophy, rather than more trivial matters. (One of Aira’s traits is a dry, critical humour of which, as we shall see, this is clearly an example.) He admits that sometimes in the evening they watch rubbish on TV as a form of relaxation.

One day he arranges to meet a friend for a drink in a café. Our narrator mentions that he had watched a not very good film on TV the previous evening. It was set in post-Soviet Ukraine and featured a famous actor who was playing a poor Ukrainian goatherd. Our narrator has seen something on television about the actor, specifically an interview with him in Paris prior to making the film, where he had already allowed his hair and beard to grow, in preparation for the role. His love life also featured. Our narrator is both amused at but highly critical of the fact that, in a scene where the goatherd finds one of his goats dead, he picks up the dead animal and his sleeve rolls up and reveals that he is wearing a Rolex watch.

To the great annoyance of the narrator, his friend dies not seem to find a problem with this. Indeed, he comes up with some logical explanations, such as the fact that the Ukrainian goatherd bought a very cheap, fake Rolex from an itinerant pedlar. Naturally, enough the narrator not only rejects this but is furious with his friend, accusing him of being an imbecile.

At this point, things start to change. Having heard the narrator make his point, the friend proceeds to give details of an incredible plot in this film, which the narrator had never imagined. This plot includes (but is not limited to) a major CIA exercise; toxic algae; giant Cossacks; flying goats; owls that burn on the inside but not the outside; Señorita Wild Savage, a legendary character from the mountains of Ukraine, the loser in a Soviet beauty contest who still roams the hills; an evil overlord; his beautiful, sexy girlfriend; dehydrating water and a series of barbers linked to one another. We (and the narrator) think that at this point, the friend has lost his mind. However, it turns out that the plot of the film may be along these lines, for we learn that both the narrator and his friend did not see all of the film. They talked to one another on the phone, arranging the meeting they are now having, they channel-surfed, they went to the toilet, they went to get a drink, the narrator muted the film while he talked to his wife and so on. In short, neither of them saw the entire film.

The issue is made more complicated when it turns out that the film was on two different channels but not exactly at the same time, but probably with a lag of half an hour, so, while both may have seen the same film, they may not have seen it at the same time. It becomes even more complicated when we learn that the interview that the narrator saw with the famous actor was not on a separate occasion but that the interview was an integral part of the film. It seems that the CIA may have been using a film set as a way of disguising their activities in Ukraine.

So where does all of this lead us? The two talk not only about the film and its various plot-lines but also about the implications. The famous actor played the Ukrainian goatherd but he did not play himself in the film within the film. He was played by another actor, moderately famous but as famous as the famous actor. So the film had famous actor playing a goatherd and not-quite-so famous actor playing famous actor.

One of Aira’s favourite themes is the fuzzy line between fiction and reality and this is very much what this is about and what the two discuss. We know – we think – that an actor playing the character and the character are two different people but are they? The famous actor growing his hair and beard is becoming less the actor and more the character. But, at the same time, the famous actor we saw growing his hair and beard was not the famous actor but someone else playing the famous actor. So how fixed is the line between the actor and the character? We are also dealing with the issue of both reality and fiction changing all the time, not necessarily at the same time, and depending very much on the perspective, on the time and who is looking at it. Aira does not come to any conclusions but the issues are aired and we are left with a lot to think about from a small book on one of the key themes of modern literature, the fiction/reality divide.

Publishing history

First published by Beatriz Viterbo in 2007
First published in English by New Directions in 2014