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César Aira: La confesión [The Confession]

This is another unusual Aira story, unusual in that it differs in style from his others, though there are a few Aira trademarks, such as the main character is something of a monster. Virtually all of the story takes place from the point of view of Count Orlov, while he sits in a chair at large family reunion. With one relatively small exception neither he nor anyone else go anywhere and not a great deal happens. Orlov is descended from a family that emigrated from Russia to Argentina. It is now quite extensive – perhaps too extensive as Orlov barely recognises anyone there. He is very concerned that it is no longer pure, in that it has intermixed with dark-skinned people and this can be seen in some of the people there, particularly the young man sitting on the sofa next to him.

The story starts with Orlov sitting on a chair, watching the people at the reunion. He is not talking to anyone. There are two people on the sofa next to him, the young man already mentioned and an older man whom he thinks he vaguely recognises. Near to him is a sort of projector, resembling an old magic lantern projector, with some strange glass slides, possibly for display in the projector but maybe not (quite a lot is unsure in this story). A boy of around eight years old is playing with the projector and slides, with no parent supervising him. Indeed, he will remain without parental supervision throughout the book, to the annoyance of Orlov (though it makes him glad that he never married and had children). The projector is on a stand and the boy is clambering on it. He clambers off and, as he does, he knocks the projector. This causes a piece of metal to spring out of the projector and hit the young man on the sofa in the mouth. The boy carries on, completely unaware of what he has done. The man – we later learn that he is called Miguelito – reacts but then states that it was not serious. However, blood seems to be coming from his mouth and, when Orlov looks closer, there seems to be a hole in Miguelito’s palate. Orlov is very concerned and immediately suggest that a doctor should be called. However when he calls out for a doctor, no-one seems to hear him and no-one reacts. He therefore makes his way through the throng to the door. At this point, he is very tempted just to leave and have nothing more to do with the matter. However, he makes his way to the main entrance and there he sees a doctor. He tells the doctor what has happened and the doctor promises to come as soon as he can. We never see the doctor again. Orlov makes his way back to his seat, from which he will not move for the rest of the book.

The unfortunate victim by now seems to have fallen asleep or fallen unconscious. Orlov is mildly worried but his neighbour, who we later learn has known Miguelito since he was a boy, remains completely indifferent to Miguelito’s condition. It is at this point that Orlov recognises the older man. He is Aniceto and Orlov recognises him from previous family reunions. Aniceto is not his name but a pseudonym he adopted when associated with a trade union movement opposed to Perón. He invites Orlov to chat with him and Orlov suddenly remembers one of their relatives, Elena Moldova. He tells a complicated story which involves Elena, an adolescent, but also Elena, a married woman and mother, who seem to be different people but turn out to the same one. Even Aniceto is confused. The story has a variety of confusing elements, in addition to Elena’s identity. It appears that, though they live in Buenos Aires and Elena is used by her grandfather as a messenger in his business dealings with the Orlovs, she has never been more than a hundred yards from their house, thinks all roads must look like theirs and all houses must be the same size as theirs. When she sees a different road, she is very confused. When she sees a large building (it is, in fact, a prison), she thinks that the atoms of a normal house have suddenly expanded. (Her grandfather has apparently developed a kind of sweet using the names of various atomic particles and has just discovered that someone else has beaten him to it.) She becomes even more confused when she gets caught up in a union demonstration and she is the only woman, among hundreds of men. Clearly, all the women have been victims of the atoms. Poor Elena is shot and killed but, despite that, she comes back from the dead. The count admits that his story is fantastical.

Meanwhile , we return to the injured man, who still seems to be sleeping. It is now Aniceto’s turn to tell a story and he tells the story of Miguelito, the victim of a bullying father (this theme occurs more than once in this story). He had previously been injured in the mouth and we learn how and why. But just when we think are into story-telling, we jump to philosophical speculations. Aniceto maintains his story is better as it lacks the “fine asymmetries” of the elitist tale told by the Count, and is more basic. This leads to other discussions on symmetry, such as the results of a US study that showed, when we select a partner, we look for symmetry in both the face and body, without realising it. Again, we jump as Orlov observes the children playing and tries to find out the rationale behind their games, before he reverts to self-reflection, much of which shows him to be self-centred.

To say that an Aira story is strange is not surprising. This one certainly is, in that nothing much happens and, yet, a lot happens, even though Orlov remains, more or less, firmly seated in his chair. Apart from the children playing, no-one else in the family – and there seem to be a lot of people – seems to do anything, except to chatter away, even when Orlov calls for a doctor for the injured man. As always with Aira, there is more than meets the eye and there is a lot to think about and, as always, this story helps confirm him as one of our most original writers of fiction.

Publishing history

First published by Beatriz Viterbo in 2009
No English translation