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César Aira: La costurera y el viento (The Seamstress and the Wind)

Aira interjects himself into this novel somewhat more than usual. He starts off by telling us how he came to write it, starting with the title. Though he had the title, he did not have the plot though he knew it was to be a novel of successive adventures, full of anomalies and inventions. Early one morning, half asleep, the plot came to him or, at least the beginning of it but, by the time he woke up, he had forgotten it. This leads on to the usual Aira discourse, this time on memory and forgetting and, linked to it, travel (he is writing the book while in Paris). Back to the plot, he comes up with a general outline: A man has a very precise and detailed premonition of three or four events that will happen in the immediate future all linked together. Not events which will happen to him, but to three or four neighbours, out in the country. At a pinch this could well describe what we finally get but it is very vague. However, he does conclude that he will never travel again.

Fortunately, he does come up with a very strange plot, even by his own (un)usual standards. As with many of his books, we start out in Coronel Pringles, Aira’s home town. We have already seen Aira as an adult and as the narrator and he will interject himself into the story, at least as a commentator, throughout the book. But we also see him as a young boy. He is an only child. He lives next door to Omar Siffoni, a boy of his age and his best friend, who is also an only child. (And, yes, he does expiate on this topic.) Omar’s father, Ramón, drives a small lorry but only in the summer. We later learn learn that he is a keen but not very successful gambler. As a result and, unusually for the town, his wife, Delia, works. She is the eponymous seamstress. Delia has her own views on the things she makes and these views are generally considered to be in poor taste but she does manage to attract clients who, as long as they give her very precise instructions, appreciate her work, as she is very fast indeed.

Two things happen at the start of the story. César and Omar are playing in the lorry of another neighbour. He is Chiquito, a single man, who has a huge lorry. The two boys like playing in it. They look up to Chiquito as he takes his lorry on long journeys to Patagonia. César is in the lorry but, for some inexplicable reason, suddenly finds himself in the kitchen in his house. His mother is there and she is surprised to see him, thinking that he had got lost. It turns out, however, that it is Omar who is lost. Was he in the lorry? No-one knows. What we do know is that Chiquito has now set off in his lorry on one of his journeys to Patagonia – the end of the world as Aira tells us.

Meanwhile, Delia has been given an urgent job to do. This is a fancy wedding dress for Silvia Balero, the drawing teacher, who seemed destined for spinsterhood but is now getting married in a hurry, as she is pregnant (though she has naturally concealed this fact, though it is a small town and everyone knows). No-one knows whom she is marrying, as the father of her child is a married man with three children.

The rest of the novel might best be described as a surrealistic version of the Keystone Kops. On hearing of her son’s departure, Delia immediately summons one of the two local taxis to go in hot pursuit, even though the vehicle is old and could not possibly catch up with Chiquito. She takes the wedding dress with her, to work on it en route.

The taxi sets off but somehow gets involved in an accident with a large lorry, ramming into the back of the lorry, which kills the driver and renders Delia unconscious. The badly damaged car, however, has been rammed so hard into the back of the lorry that it stays there and continues on its journey attached to the lorry. The driver even stops for the night and sleeps in a bunk behind his cab but does not notice the car. The next day, the lorry is jerked by a heavy wind, which results in the corpse of the driver, Delia, the wedding dress and part of the car being dislodged. Delia and the dress are carried up in the air by the wind and eventually land safely. Delia has by now regained consciousness but she is now on her own out in the remote wilderness of Patagonia.

Meanwhile, Ramón has returned home and found his wife and son missing and he sets off in hot pursuit. He is followed by a small blue car. He can see the car but does not know who is in it and why the car is following him. However, much he accelerates or decelerates, the car always remains just half a mile behind him. And if you think that this going to have a fairly conventional outcome, you will be very much surprised. A lorry with several rooms, a gambling joint where one of the gamblers wins not only the money and the premises but one of the guests, an anthropomorphic wind, a Seventh Seal-like chess game which is, in fact, a card game, a foetus which becomes a ravaging monster and a car made out of an armadillo shell are just some of the madcap features Aira throws at us.

As always, it is huge fun, not least because we have no idea what Aira is going to throw at us next. As mentioned, he will interrupt the story to comment on the plot, the landscape, his time in Paris, memory and forgetting and travel. And, as always, he makes some serious points about these topics. It is another worthy addition to the Aira canon.

Publishing history

First published by Beatriz Viterbo Editora in 1994
First published in English by New Directions in 2011
Translated by Rosalie Knecht