César Aira, 2013
Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, 2015
If you are fan of short stories read this book.
“Daydreams are always about concepts, not examples. I wouldn’t want anything I’ve written to be taken as an example.” (235) The Infinite
Of the twenty stories collected here, 19 are pure magical linguistic treasures and the one lesser story, Athena Magazine, had only dissatisfied me primarily because it was overly focused on a repetition of the geometric possibilities to create a literary magazine of double or quadruple issues that failed to capture my interest. Although that one story had failed for me, following along the thought process of numerical significance it is important to recognize that 19 of 20 stories is an impressive 95% success rate that illuminates this collection as a treasure trove of pleasurable reading.
I am no tourist in the world of César Aira; I’ve gobbled up several of his short novellas, loving each for their unique perspective, whimsical flight of narrative, and impressive scope of ideas. When this short story collection, The Musical Brain, hit the shelves I immediately snagged a copy with anticipation to fit it in my reading schedule. It served as a perfect travel companion during my most recent trip to Australia during moments awaiting a flight or during long, rainy nights in the rainforest. From the opening pages of the first story, A Brick Wall, I immediately knew that I was in for some fun with this collection.
In that first story, told from the perspective of an adult recalling his youthful love of the theatre, the unnamed narrator tells us how he and his childhood friend, inspired by film plots, had created a complicated game of espionage that they carried on through their teenage years. One or the other would often forget the existence of the game but would inevitably be caught back in the web of play-espionage as one or the other would leave clues that reminded the other of the game’s importance to their friendship and their worldview. That gameplay would continue on ad infinitum to the point that we find the narrator wondering if his adult friend was possibly waiting for the next secret message. The telling of this gameplay is a backdrop to the idea that film narration depends on the twisting of reality in the “brick wall” much like the “fourth wall” of the theatre that is “a super-reality, or, rather, reality itself [that] seemed diffuse, disorganized, deprived of that rare, elegant concision that was the secret of cinema” (7).
The magic, reality-altering nature of the cinema told through the story the Brick Wall is a perfect beginning to this collection because its themes reflect the magic possibilities of the narrative word. In this collection Aira takes some fantastic and enjoyable narrative leaps, all with an economy of words that adeptly travels through a plethora of possible ideas.
For example, in Picasso the narrator is faced with a genie-like choice to either own a Picasso painting or to actually become Picasso. Through an amusing exploration of the monetary benefits of owning one of the master’s works the narrator wrestles with the pleasures and struggles of actually giving up his own existence and become Picasso, living the entirety of the painter’s life. In the title story, The Musical Brain, a village passes around a token magical statue of a brain that actually plays music, all while a fantastical love crime between two twin brother midgets from the traveling circus ends in death and new life reincarnated through a statue. It sounds wild an fantastical and it is a fun-filled romp to read. In The Two Men a villager is dedicated to daily visits to two men living in solitude due to their deformities as one of the two has gigantic feet and the other has gigantic hands.
The entire collection is filled with all sorts of fun stretches of the imagination, but what is truly great about Aira is that his writing manages to use these fun novelties as forums to explore universal ideas. From the outset In the Cafe´ is a simple story about a young girl in a cafe´ with her mother. The little girl receives a gift of folded napkin from one of cafe´ customers:
“A child requires so little to be happy. So little, and yet, at the same time, so much, because the little thing that fills the child with innocent happiness lasts no longer than a sigh and then must be replaced by another.” (55-56) In the Cafe´
The simple gift of that folded napkin takes us on a journey of ideas, that travels the globe, exploring the possibilities of choices based on relationships with others. This is Aira’s real gift, taking ideas and running with them.
One of the stories that really gripped me was The Criminal and the Cartoonist, the story of a famous cartoonist who has cataloged the life of a criminal’s exploits. The cartoonist claims to have received inspiration for his cartoons through newspaper clippings from years prior, but somehow time has shifted and the cartoons he draws are a real time telling of the actual exploits of a current day criminal. The story begins as the cartoonist finds himself with a knife at his throat, the potential victim to the furious criminal who claims that the cartoons are leading the police towards capturing him. The two exchange a tense argument about the twist of truth represented in the fictional cartoons:
“He had placed to much faith in language and reason. He’d forgotten that he was at the mercy of a terrible criminal, who could not have become what he was had he not already been an insane monster, impermeable to humanity. Already, and still.” (201) The Criminal and the Cartoonist
The intensity of this dialogue is made believable through Aira’s narrative skill, as he is a writer who dances along reality and possibility. The stories here are truly like daydreams made real. I could go on and on giving more example and providing a synopsis of each story, but what I’d rather do is just encourage you to read The Musical Brain and enjoy the distorted whimsical reality of Aira’s creation for yourself.
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