An Interview with Cesar Aira - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Cesar Aira

[WRITER]
by Pablo Calvi
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Cesar Aira

[WRITER]
by Pablo Calvi
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Cesar Aira

Pablo Calvi
104 Snaps

César Aira sits with one leg crossed high over the other. He reads as he waits, gray shawl-collar sweater and blue jeans, potbelly popping out of the rolled-arm sofa like a bas-relief. Tonight, the most prolific Latin American writer of the past twenty years—he is credited with at least eighty short novels—will be named one of the ten finalists for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize (which will later be won by László Krasznahorkai). As of right now, however, we are both ignorant of that impending outcome. Aira, black leather Derby shoe kicking into the air, is pushing sixty-seven but carries himself like a teenager, his disinterested shoulders dropping heavily from a thin, translucent neck.

We have met before, but he doesn’t make eye contact. He is notoriously wary of journalists, and rarely opens up to interviews. Two days earlier, at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Aira ignored me for the first time. He was invited there to read an excerpt from The Musical Brain (published by New Directions, in a translation by Chris Andrews). He chose a short story from the collection, based on Cecil Taylor, the godfather prodigy of atonal jazz. I had met Aira in person the night before, in an apartment on the Upper West Side. We had shared a couch.

In the early pages of the story “Cecil Taylor,” Aira imagines the musician’s beginnings: those fatidic days before the glory, in an abject New York, playing on grimy, flat pianos—rejected, despised, downtrodden. The iconic Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño said that “Cecil Taylor” was “one of the best five stories [he could] remember.”

Hiding among the mostly youthful Brooklyn audience—some one hundred people, maybe more—sitting in the last row of chairs, cocooned in a Missoni sweater, was Cecil Taylor himself. Despite ashy hair and a bent spine, the man still looked as radiant as a young boy. After the reading, Aira rescued the musician and, arm in arm, they walked out into the night. On Fulton Street they reached a German pub where they sat side by side to talk, mostly about Taylor’s mother. I watched them from afar, but Aira described the conversations to me the next day.

I used to live in Aira’s neighborhood, Flores, in Buenos Aires. I used to eat at Pumper Nic, the burger chain restaurant where he wrote La prueba. “I’ve always written in cafés,” Aira told me in a follow-up email a few days after our interview. “I believe that, of all of my books, I never wrote a single line at home. When the Pumper Nic existed, I used to go there a lot. I set a short novel there. When the movie [based on the book] was made, Pumper Nic had disappeared [in Buenos Aires], but the director found an open one somewhere outside of town and used it as a location.” Pumper Nic’s logo of a green hippo was emblazoned on its hulking garbage cans. The animal was painted there as if to devour the leftovers. Years later, I realize that I have always associated Aira with that hippo, and with the idea of repurposing the leftovers of life, digesting them into elegant stretches of fiction: the scraps of perception become forceful nutrition for the mind, garbage into art. Beauty, it has been proven, lies always in the eye of the beholder.

It’s a cold spring morning in Manhattan, and logs burn in the fireplace at the Gramercy Park Hotel. To make myself noticed, I now move closer to the sofa, stepping under a cornucopian chandelier. He must see me standing right here. I’m feet away from his briefcase, propped next to him on the floor. Although, now that I think of it, the Aira I learned about never carries anything but notebooks and novels in his hands. This man, I realize, is not avoiding me. He is simply not Aira.

Back at the reception desk, a clerk calls his room. Nobody picks up the phone, so I walk back to the entrance, by the café, to look for the real Aira. And there I see him, sitting at the bar on a tall, leathery stool. He sips his coffee with milk from a massive china cup. His gray cardigan is all zipped up. His preference for window seating is a taste he must have acquired during his years as a high-school student in his native town of Coronel Pringles. Pringles is not a made-up place, like Hogwarts or Macondo. It is a real town, where the long views of the pampas, that vast extension of green pastures, stretched Aira’s imagination for miles. The pampas were also Borges’s chosen geography, and his bequest to Aira; there, both writers set loose some of their best fiction. It is the pampas where Aira imagined his books Ema, la cautiva and Entre los indios. But, unlike Borges’s, Aira’s pampas hinge between fiction and fact, between memory and fantasy, in fine balance.

And yet the man by the window is still not him. How many lookalikes can Aira—who himself wrote about cloning the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes—have? But as I stand by the revolving door, Aira comes in, twenty minutes late, hand extended. We shake; he is shivering as if to pass the cold outside to me. His bones are long and gelid, but otherwise he looks exactly like his doubles. He tells me he has shielded himself from the New York winter with a thermal shirt, “like the ones they use in Antarctica.” As we decide where to talk, we walk into a deserted dance hall filled with purple, upside-down chairs, where we find the only two facing each other in front of a table. There’s a crew of people outside waiting to invade the room with clusters of balloons. For the time being, they stay out of our way.—Pablo Calvi

THE BELIEVER: I wanted you to visit Fort Greene because I had the feeling we would run into Cecil Taylor and you could meet him in person. Is he actually your favorite musician of all time?

CÉSAR AIRA: He’s one of the musicians that I listen to the most—someone whose records I’ve collected the most. He remains a nostalgic souvenir from my twenties, when I would get together with my friends. We would listen to Cecil and other jazzmen, and free jazz, which for us and for me especially was an explosion of freedom, or radicalism, of something that in the end… I’m a great appreciator of music despite the fact that I don’t have a good musical ear. I admire it a little bit from the outside. Curiously, I was thinking not long ago how many people consume music—so many people; everybody, right?—but how few of them actually know the language of music. And maybe you could trace a parallel with literature. How many people consume books, read them, but how few of them know what literature is, how literature works properly?

BLVR: Do you know how music works?

CA: No. No. That’s why I tell you I consume it from the sidelines. Just with pleasure. With time I’ve also learned a thing or two—to differentiate one tonality from another. But practically, I think only musicians know how to read the language of music. For literature, that is worse, because to be a musician you need to know the language of music, but to write books you don’t.

BLVR: But you have a different position regarding literature. You have said that literature is the most difficult art.

CA: Yes.

BLVR: And I’ve been thinking about that. There are musical prodigies, kids who are four or five years old and can play the piano with genius virtuosity. But there are no writers who are four or five years of age and have written any important work.

CA: Well, there’s the case of Rimbaud, maybe the only one.

BLVR: He was seventeen, eighteen.

CA: Well, at fourteen, fifteen he was already writing great poems. At eighteen he stopped writing. Yes. I thought about that because of the following: I had always thought that I had chosen literature by a process of elimination. In my youth, in the ’60s, there was a big explosion of rock and roll, of music. I wanted to be a musician. Everybody wanted to be a rock star. There was a big explosion of painting, of fine arts. In Buenos Aires there was the Instituto di Tella. Everybody wanted to be a fine artist. There was a huge explosion of cinema: the French new wave, Antonioni, Bergman. We all consumed a lot of films. We wanted to make movies. All those things were difficult, remote, because to make music you had to have an innate ability. For fine arts it was the same thing, in a certain way. And there were practical concerns in making movies—you needed a lot of money. So what was left was literature, for which you didn’t need anything but a notebook and a pen. So my entire life I thought that I had chosen literature by a process of elimination.

BLVR: I am working on a long feature on Basquiat, but not in particular about Basquiat—about one of his assistants, who lived with him for a number of years. They became friends; they did drugs together. He told me that Basquiat could paint only when he was listening to someone telling a story. He couldn’t paint in isolation, but only while he was receiving information from the world. And you write in a similar fashion, right?

CA: Yes, in a sense, if you consider that the initial push comes from an idea that comes to me from who knows where, “out of the blue sky” [in English] or from something I hear. But I never plan the entire narration, short story, or novella. I just take that beginning and I jump into it blindly. And then, yes, the episodes that follow usually come from things that happen to me, things I see, I hear. I like it to be like that because if I planned the entire story there would be a straight line from the beginning to the end. But if I leave it open to “serendipity” [in English] and randomness, that line becomes sinuous and, at least for me, more entertaining.

piano with genius virtuosity. But there are no writers who are four or five years of age and have written any important work.

CA: Well, there’s the case of Rimbaud, maybe the only one.

BLVR: He was seventeen, eighteen.

CA: Well, at fourteen, fifteen he was already writing great poems. At eighteen he stopped writing. Yes. I thought about that because of the following: I had always thought that I had chosen literature by a process of elimination. In my youth, in the ’60s, there was a big explosion of rock and roll, of music. I wanted to be a musician. Everybody wanted to be a rock star. There was a big explosion of painting, of fine arts. In Buenos Aires there was the Instituto di Tella. Everybody wanted to be a fine artist. There was a huge explosion of cinema: the French new wave, Antonioni, Bergman. We all consumed a lot of films. We wanted to make movies. All those things were difficult, remote, because to make music you had to have an innate ability. For fine arts it was the same thing, in a certain way. And there were practical concerns in making movies—you needed a lot of money. So what was left was literature, for which you didn’t need anything but a notebook and a pen. So my entire life I thought that I had chosen literature by a process of elimination.

BLVR: I am working on a long feature on Basquiat, but not in particular about Basquiat—about one of his assistants, who lived with him for a number of years. They became friends; they did drugs together. He told me that Basquiat could paint only when he was listening to someone telling a story. He couldn’t paint in isolation, but only while he was receiving information from the world. And you write in a similar fashion, right?

CA: Yes, in a sense, if you consider that the initial push comes from an idea that comes to me from who knows where, “out of the blue sky” [in English] or from something I hear. But I never plan the entire narration, short story, or novella. I just take that beginning and I jump into it blindly. And then, yes, the episodes that follow usually come from things that happen to me, things I see, I hear. I like it to be like that because if I planned the entire story there would be a straight line from the beginning to the end. But if I leave it open to “serendipity” [in English] and randomness, that line becomes sinuous and, at least for me, more entertaining.

BLVR: So you don’t work based on a score, but you work with improvisation, like with free jazz.

CA: Yes. I never thought of it like that, but yes. It’s something like that. Free writing.

BLVR: I took this from a translation of Flaubert: “A good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous.” Do you agree?

CA: I never thought of literature like that. To me, good prose is when each phrase responds to the implicit question hidden in the phrase preceding it. In that way, it gets concatenated. That’s the secret of prose: that for each phrase you write there are many implicit queries. For instance, Valéry’s famous phrase “The Marquise went out at five o’clock.” There are many questions implicit in that: why did she go out? Why did she go out at five o’clock? Where did she go? Where was she before she left? You choose one of these questions and you answer it in the next phrase. She went out because she couldn’t stand her husband anymore. Now, in poetry, this is exactly the opposite. Poetry creates constellations of phrases, fragments. “The Marquise went out at five o’clock,” and if you are writing poetry… “the birds sing at dawn.”

That reads like a John Ashbery poem. But it’s not prose. True prose—and for me the model is established by the great French writers of the eighteenth century; Diderot, for instance—true prose is that concatenated prose that moves forward by answering to the previous phrase. So that comparison with poetry, with verse, is erroneous.

BLVR: Do you read your translations into English?

CA: Sometimes I check them out. But not too much. I should say no. In fact, I don’t re-read my books once they are published, much less a translation.

BLVR: When I read Borges’s biographies, in which he talks about that transitional moment between the 1920s and the 1940s—

CA: In Argentina, he was recognized immediately—

BLVR: —he is too shrewd to acknowledge that he is positioning himself in the universal canon. He is too cynical to explain how that process feels, maybe because he was not interested in psychology. But you come from a different place. And I assume that you probably can see that you are positioning yourself at an important juncture in literature. Can you explain that process, that shift, to us?

CA: Yes. I live it with incredulity and with certain sadness due to the misunderstandings. At some point I praised the misunderstanding, because I always thought that literature leaps from over-understanding to misunderstanding. When you are writing, you know everything about what you are writing. But the reader will understand something else. From over-understanding to misunderstanding, without stopping in understanding, because if they understood you completely, it would mean that you are a journalist, an informer. But now I feel a little bit—here, or in France or in Germany—that I am misunderstood. I feel like going back home, closing the doors, and just writing for myself.

BLVR: You seem to be particularly interested in certain musical topics. The castrati are an example of that. Why?

CA: Music and religion. Religion inspires me a lot, too. Being someone totally separated from religion, and far removed from any religious feeling, I find it appealing. In religious legends, from different religions, I always find something… I remember a phrase by Borges: there are no absurd ideas that have not been written at some point by a philosopher. And I add: if the idea was too absurd even for a philosopher, it must have come from a theologian. [Chuckles]

BLVR: How about the idea of success, which is a recurrent topic for your characters? Cecil Taylor’s success, for instance, is a central point in his story. He is the greatest musician of all time, but he is never understood. Just like you?

CA: Well, that is a universal topic, like love or Nazism, yes. Maybe it is also a topic of youth. After a certain age, you are not interested in that anymore, those material aspects of success, especially when some of these issues have been resolved, and you can finally live without concerns—in particular, when these small inklings or outbreaks of success that I have start to become uncomfortable. Because they force me to be around people, to talk, to stay up late, to endure personalities whom in any other circumstance I would not tolerate, to smile at people whom I wouldn’t normally smile at. Success, real success, can probably take you through a social calvary. And that’s perhaps why so many stars end up isolated, enclosing themselves…

BLVR: Many of your books focus on Native Americans. Why are you so interested in them?

CA: I am not so interested in them as a topic, but as a great frame for pure fiction. In a recent novel, the chief Cafulcurá (I call him Cafulcurá and not Calfucurá, which is his real, historical name) is the main character. At the end, he has a dialogue with the devil. And the devil tells him that he knows why he uses the name Cafulcurá, misplacing the l. It is because of superstition. The real name must remain hidden. Cafulcurá is a pseudonym. But yes, I like to write about the Indians because I can express my point of view, display my ideas. In this recent novel, which is called Entre los indios [Among Indians], I make Cafulcurá explain his ideology against labor, against culture, against civilization.

BLVR: Do you like the cover of The Musical Brain? Sometimes you talk about the tactile aspect of literature. Do you think that covers like this one enhance that aspect of books?

CA: Yes. Maybe that’s the reason why I publish so many of them. And small books, too. Because I do like books. I’ve lived most of my life among books, and books are my life, so they make me happy. And I very much like the great books crafted in certain countries. The most beautiful of all are the Hungarian ones. I don’t know why, but they have such an exquisite elegance. But, of course, I cannot read these books. The only two things I can read in those books are César Aira and Coronel Pringles. The only four words I understand. Hungarian is a fatal language. Japanese books are also very beautiful because of the exoticism of having to read them backward, the little columns. I like that. Sometime back, I remember, I had published many books, but none of them had been published in hardcover. And I wondered, When will that time come? [Chuckles] Now that time came and passed.

BLVR: How do you feel about this new status of “famous writer” that you have reached here?

CA: I don’t pay too much attention to it. This experience has given me a number of good things: visiting a city as “capital” as New York, for instance. But it also has the downside: all of that attention focused on me, which is something I don’t like. I want to be left alone, to go back home, to write. I noticed that here I cannot write. I am distracted. Even when I lock myself up in my room. And by contrast, I have noticed how much writing helps me to live. And it helps me in spite of the fact that I write so little—never more than a half hour, maybe one hour in the morning—and despite the fact that lately I haven’t been writing too well, either.

BLVR: Why do you say that your writing is getting worse?

CA: Lately I’ve written very little due to family problems, due to my age, due to the fact that I am feeling tired. It might also be a period of low energy that I may soon overcome. But since this never happened to me before, and since I’ve always maintained the same level of work, and I’ve always enjoyed the same desire to write, this feeling saddens me a lot. Nothing comes out. I start something and, three pages into it, it feels like it doesn’t work, that I don’t want to pursue it anymore. So this may be the end. Not long ago, talking to someone very intelligent—this curator, Hans Ulrich Obrist, a superstar curator—we discussed inspiration. And I told him that with time I’ve realized that inspiration is secondary, but what is primary is your will. Your desire to do what you do. If you lose that will, inspiration is good for nothing.

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