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César Aira: El testamento del mago tenor [The Will of the Tenor Magician]

The book, as is usual with Aira, starts in a fairly straightforward fashion. The Tenor Magician lives in Switzerland in a large mansion, with a housekeeper to look after him. The mansion is remote and hidden by trees, though other rich people live in the area. He seems to be dying and has summoned his lawyer, President Hoffmann, from the Lausanne Bar. Hoffmann had assumed that he had long since died. Hoffmann takes with him a young lawyer, Jean Ball.

On the journey there, Hoffmann explains how the magician has lived since his retirement. All magicians, Hoffmann tells Ball, have the standard repertoire – pulling a rabbit out of a hat or sawing a woman in half – but they also have their special tricks. When they retire, they sell these (for a seemingly high price) to up and coming magicians. This finances their retirement. Of course, once they buy them, they can, in turn, sell them when they retire, so that many of the tricks are not original but bought from previous magicians.

Hoffmann and Ball see the magician and then leave. He dies the next afternoon. We later learn that the magician has given his final trick to the Eternal Buddha. It is decided that it will delivered to the Eternal Buddha by Ball in person. Ball is very happy with this arrangement, as he has never travelled and has always wanted to go to India.

At this point the reader is wondering how something like this can be delivered to the Eternal Buddha. It seems that there is an area of the Punjab where gods spring up – Aira explains to some degree how this has happened – and one of these is the Eternal Buddha. He is very much a living person but is also a god, in that he can do things human cannot do. He is also very small.

Buddha lives in a dilapidated house with his housekeeper, Mrs. Gohu. They have a tempestuous relationship. She had come to India as the servant of a rich woman, Mrs Mrobat. Mrs Mrobat’s story is also explained. The Buddha and Mrs Gohu had been brought together by Brain Force.

Brain Force is something of a mysterious organisation. We later learn they are involved in industrial espionage – both doing it (because everyone does) and also protecting their clients from it. However, they also represent people and they represent Buddha and Mrs Gohu. Why they represent Mrs Gohu is not clear, though she seems to have done something unspecified which has given her a certain amount of fame. Whatever the reason, they decide it would be cost-effective to put the two together, which is what has happened. We learn about their life together, how they make money (drug dealing is part of it, as Buddha is not keen to promote himself, as Brain Force would wish). We learn a lot about their life together, including about their unique air conditioning system.

Meanwhile, Jean Ball has set sail for India. On the boat he meets Palmyra, a part-Indian woman who has been studying international relations in Paris but is now fed up with it and is going home. The pair have a brief fling.

Ball duly delivers the magician’s trick to the Buddha. The Buddha has never opened an envelope before and that causes problems. Though he can read, he does not and that causes problems. However, he is eventually intrigued by the trick.

Ball, meanwhile, heads home but his adventures are not over. On the boat, he meets an Indian, Mr.Gauchat and, unusually for him (he never reads for pleasure), gets to read a book and Palmyra’s documents that she has collected for her thesis,inadvertently placed in Ball’s case. Both the book – one of a series of novels featuring the Buddha – and the manuscripts reveal a lot about the story.

I have said this many times when reviewing Aira’s novels but will say it again. Aira goes off on all sort of peculiar tangents, often leaving the reader lost and wondering what is going on. Sometimes there is some sort of explanation but not always. In this we do get an explanation at the very end as to why the Magician is called the Tenor Magician and we have had some sort of explanation about the Buddha and Mrs Gohu but, nevertheless, the novel, is, as usual, somewhat baffling which, of course, is part of the pleasure of reading Aira. You never get what you expect and are often left trying to work it out. Sadly, this is one of the many Aira novels not to make it into English.

Publishing history

First published by Editorial Emecé in 2013
No English translation
First published in French as Le testament du magicien Ténor by Christian Bourgois in 2014
Translated by Marta Martinez Valls
First published in German as Das Testament des Zauberers Tenor by Matthes & Seitz in 2019
Translated by Christian Hansen