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César Aira: La cena (Dinner)

César Aira has covered a variety of subjects in his novels so it is perhaps not surprising that he gives us a zombie novel. I am not an expert on the zombie novel – there is only one on this site – but I must admit to having seen the odd zombie film, both the standard horror type and the spoof zombie film. With my limited knowledge of the topic, I am guessing this novel is not your typical zombie work, though it certainly incorporates tropes from the standard zombie book/film.

The setting is Coronel Pringles, Aira’s home town and the setting for many of his works. Our hero/narrator is a sixty-year old man, whose businesses have failed and who is now bankrupt. He has never been married. He is living with his mother in her flat, with the sole income of the two being her pension. He spends much of his time channel surfing the seventy TV channels available, too depressed to seek work or do anything else.

At the start of the novel, the narrator and his mother are going to dinner with the narrator’s only remaining friend. He lives on his own in a large house, full of curios and curiosities. He is apparently rich, having made his money in construction. I say apparently because, though the narrator maintains that he is rich, his mother later says that he, too, is broke. This is important, as the narrator had hoped to ask him for a loan to start up a new business.

At the dinner, the mother and friend gossip incessantly, talking about the inhabitants of the town and coming out with long lists of names of families and inhabitants, past and present. It was truly magical: names came to their lips with enormous facility and in abundant quantities. Did so many people now live or had so many people ever lived in Pringles? Any excuse would suffice for them to conjure up a whole new bunch of names.

The narrator is somewhat lost as he does not recall any of these names, thinking of people by events associated with them, rather than by their names. He mentions a specific incident – as a child he and his mother had visited the local seamstresses and they found the floor was missing in the the room where they worked, leaving only one great big pit, very deep, with dark gullies full of crumbling dirt and rocks, and water at the bottom. Without the names, his mother has no recollection of this event.

The dinner does not end well. The friend shows them some of his curiosities – an old mechanical toy, which when, wound up, has a man in a dinner jacket entering the bedroom of a blind woman, and singing a tango, with more complexities to follow. He also shows them a small room completely occupied by a giant doll. While our narrator is impressed, his mother is not and will later wonder why he wastes his money on these toys.

After dinner, mother and son return home. She goes to bed, while he channel surfs. The town has its own TV station and on Saturday nights, it consists of a female reporter riding around the town and reporting on anything she finds interesting. In the narrator’s view, this is very little. However, he comes across the channel in his surfing and sees her riding on a road he does not recognise and wonders where she is going and why.

Meanwhile down at the cemetery… The guard has noticed a movement in the earth and suspects an earthquake, which surprises him as Coronel Pringles is not prone to earthquakes. It is, of course, the corpses of the dead rising up in their hundreds, even thousands. He locks himself in his office but to no avail. They break down his strong, metal door and suck the endorphins out of his brain. Yes, they are looking for endorphins to cheer themselves up.

Much of the rest of the novel is about the attack of the zombies. Aira gives us the full details of the attack and the less than effective defence. He also shows how a solution is found which is definitely not one of the conventional zombie tropes but is, sort of, related to the dinner of the evening before.

The most surprising thing is that, the next morning, when the narrator is talking first to his mother and then to his friend, the topic of the zombies only warrants an aside, though it seems that a significant number of the populace was killed and a significant part of the town destroyed.

Is there a connection between the two events, the dinner and the zombie attack? Well, clearly the title is somewhat ironic, in that the dinner could both be the one the three ate and the zombies eating the brains of the townspeople. Apart from the connection between an event at the dinner and the discovery of how to control the zombies, there seems to be little connection between the two. None of three dinner participants seems to have been involved in the zombie attack, as victims, as spectators or defenders, though most of the rest of the town does seem to have been involved.

Aira does make his philosophical point with the connection between the dinner and the zombie attack and there seems also to be a general point on insane and erratic behaviour (both mother and son think each other somewhat insane), the two events are kept very separate. Indeed, the zombie attack is told in the third person, while the rest by the narrator. While this is certainly different, I am not sure that is one of Aira’s best.

Publishing history

First published by Beatriz Viterbo in 2006
First published in English by New Directions in 2016
Translated by Katherine Silver