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César Aira: Fulgentius (Fulgentius)

César Aira’s novels tend to be set in modern Argentina, primarily in Buenos Aires or his home town of Coronel Pringles. While some have been set elsewhere, going back to the classical world is unusual, though not unknown. Parménides, published in 2006, was set in fifth century Greece. I think this is probaly the first to be set in ancient Rome.

Our eponymous hero is the fictitious Fabius Exelsus Fulgentius. He is a sixty-seven year old Legatus, a general who is the hero of over a hundred campaigns across the length and breadth of the Roman Empire and its fringes. He has just been offered another campaign, to pacify the unruly elements of Pannonia, a province in the territory of present-day western Hungary, eastern Austria, northern Croatia, north-western Serbia, northern Slovenia and northern Bosnia and Herzegovina. His family had suggested that he decline but he said duty called him. In fact, there are two reasons why he is happy to accept. The first is that he is bored with Rome – same places, same faces. The second is because of his play. Later in the book he wonders if he was sent on a false mission, just to get him away from various intrigues going on in Rome.

When he was twelve, he wrote a tragedy. This was intended as a spoof on tragedies, which he thought were trite. However, as he writes it, he realises that there is more to tragedies than meets the eye. His tutor praises it. He then proceeds to forget it for thirty years. The tragedy is called Fulgentius and features a character based on himself. An autobiographical tragedy is something new in Roman drama and he is quite proud of having essentially invented a new genre. When someone asks him, thirty years later, if he knows the play, he is surprised to find that his play has been resurrected and performed. He now takes it with him and has it performed wherever he goes. The start of the novel finds him in the amphitheatre in Vindobona (modern-day Vienna), en route to Pannonia, but spending a few weeks to see his play performed, which he watches with a very critical eye.

His basic rule is that, as soon as the play has been performed, he is off, so his legions sets off to the wilds of Pannonia. They do what Romans do – burn villages, kill unruly tribesman, loot and pillage. As this is Aira, there is a certain amount of philosophising but, on the whole, Fulgentius is practical man, not given to philosophising. For him a dead body is a dead body and nothing more. However there is a slight exception. In every campaign, he chooses one corpse and contemplates it serenely. It reminds him of something but he cannot think what. He thought of his own life and the discontinuity of his youth. In this case, it is a very young man, who looks as though he is sleeping.

They are aiming for Carnuntum where, of course, he will put on his play. It is the play, far more than the campaign, that worries him. In this case, the available cast seems somewhat elderly, except for the director, Julius, who proposes playing the role of Fulgentius. The real Fulgentius is somewhat concerned, as Julius seems somewhat effeminate. However, he is very pleased with the result. Julius’ effeminacy gives him a touching fragility.

They continue their journey, dealing with some monks of a pagan religion who refuse to pay their taxes because their gods have told them not to pay them. They seem to be able to communicate with the people by telepathy. Mass crucifixion is one of the solutions. Later on, they will meet determined resistance, which gives him some worry.

The journeys are long, giving him much time for reflection. Though he does reflect on a lot of topics, he is very worried that he is falling into the area he most hated: philosophy. The deplorable philosophy had the devilish skill of infiltrating against the most stubborn resistance of his brain. Of course, many of his musings clearly are philosophy in the broadest sense as Aira is pointing out. For example, he thinks about his travels and is surprised that people travel for pleasure and goes on to ruminate on why people do travel for pleasure. He also ruminates on the very nature of his life.

Does the journey change him? Absolutely. We and his men see marked change in him as he returns, a change brought about by his thoughts and his philosophising about his life, where it has been and where it might still go.

This is somewhat different from the usual Aira book. There is, as usual, lots of philosophising but, essentially, it tells of one Roman campaign,as seen through the eyes of its general. The Airean unusual aspect is that we have a seasoned sixty-seven year old general, who seems to enjoy campaigning and getting away from his family and Rome and yet is somewhat obsessed with a play he wrote fifty-five years ago, putting much effort (and delay to the progress of his legion) to ensure that it is performed how he wants it. However, we learn of it early on and it does not appear as a later twist in the novel, as often happens in his books. I am not sure if this will make it into English any time soon but it is, as always, an interesting addition to his oeuvre.

Publishing history

First published by Literatura Random House in 2020
First English translation in 2023 by New Directions
Translated by Chris Andrews