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César Aira: El congreso de literatura (The Literary Conference)

When you read an Aira story, you know that you are likely to get something original and, quite probably, something a bit perplexing. This is certainly the case with this novel. The hero/narrator, as we learn well into the novel, is called César. We do not learn if his surname is Aira. By profession, he is a literary translator. However, he has been very much down on his luck recently. Since 2008, when the financial crisis hit, publishers suddenly have been finding themselves with a large stock of unsold books. As a result, they decided not to commission further translations, leaving César without work and having to rely on his meagre savings. César, however, has two other occupations, though they do not bring him in any money. He is a professional writer. We do actually learn of one of his works, a play. He is also a scientist, specifically an expert in cloning. Indeed, he is able to clone any living creature from just one cell, including human beings. He has, in fact, cloned several humans. His reasons for doing so are very simple – he wants to rule the world. However, as he is quick to point out, he is not like the mad scientist of the Hollywood film, who gets carried away, behaves illogically and ends up causing a catastrophe. César has thought this out and realised that even if he were to clone thousands of human beings, he could not take over the world, as they would have no weapons and weapons, not being organic, cannot be cloned. His solution? To clone a genius and, in particular, a celebrity genius. However, celebrities are difficult to approach for ordinary people but he has found a solution – using one of his cloned wasps to get the cell he needs from the celebrity.

César has been invited to a literary conference in Mérida (the one in Venezuela and where the Spanish version of this book was published). There are a few reasons for going. Firstly, he has been invited as they are putting on one of his plays. This play is a post-modern version of the Adam and Eve story, with Adam accused of being a serial killer. César is well aware of the anomaly this presents, as there is only one other person alive at this time, namely Eve. Secondly, he feels in need of a holiday and, as he loves Mérida, and he can spend time at the swimming pool, it will be a good chance for a break. However, Mérida is also the home of Amelina, a woman he met there many years ago and fell in love with. He lost touch with her as he failed to note her address, probably a Freudian slip, as he was married with children and she was young enough to be his daughter. However, he hopes to see her again.

The final reason for his visit is for his genius. Carlos Fuentes is attending the conference and César hopes to get a cell from him with his wasp. On the way to the conference, because of plane scheduling, he stops off in Macuto, home of the famous Hilo de Macuto (Macuto Line). (The line is fictitious but the town is real and pirates certainly went there.) The line is a very long rope, just above the surface of the sea then passing under the sea and then rising up to the mountain, and forming a triangle, anchored on an obelisk. It apparently gives a clue to where the pirates buried their treasure but no-one has been able to work out what it means, despite hordes of experts, scientists and computer programmes. César is able to solve the problem fairly quickly and gets the treasure which, of course, resolves his financial problems. Apparently, he is able to do this as he is the only person in the world to have read Bogdanov’s Философия живого опыта [Philosophy of Life Experience] (a book which has not been translated into Spanish or any other language), Estanislao del Campo’s Faust, a gaucho poetry book written in Spanish but translated into English and Raymond Roussel’s La Poussière de soleil [The Sun Dust], a play not translated into English or Spanish. Why they should help him to work out the secret is not revealed, particularly as he has told us clearly that he is definitely not a genius. But that is part of Aira’s charm.

Once he gets to Mérida, he does, as he said he would, spend much of his time by the pool, where, he points out, only perfect specimens come, of which he is one, the rest of the world being monsters, in his eyes. Indeed, apart from the self-deprecating comment that he is far from being genius, even though he uncovers the secrets of the Hilo de Macuto, most of his comments about himself conform to the standard Hollywood mad genius, with comments such as no-one could possibly be aware of or understand the mental activity going on in his brain and this comment about the swimmers. He does send out the wasp (there is quite a bit about her – she is female – and his treatment of her) and he does get the cell from Fuentes. This has to be incubated, for technical reasons, on a mountain-top, something quite feasible in Mérida, as the town is surrounded by mountains. Though he does not find Amelina, he does meet Nelly, another ex, young enough to be his daughter, and he is with her, after the performance of his play (which he has insisted be performed at the airport). At this point the novel goes into full Hollywood B science fiction mode.

It is all great fun – I think. Aira is clearly making fun of the Hollywood B film tradition. But is he making a serious point? Yes, he does raise the issue of artistic creation and the use of brain power but, I suspect, his main aim is just to tell a story, albeit a story that is perhaps somewhat different from the conventional stories we may be used to, though that is the case with much of his work. If we choose to look it that way, as a story with Hollywood B film aspects, as told by as serious Argentinian, we will find that it really is a most enjoyable tale.

Publishing history

First published by Fundación Casa de las Letras Mariano Picón Salas, Mérida, Venezuela in 1997
First published in English in 2010 by New Directions