Dinner by César Aira (tr. Katherine Silver)/ New Directions. $13.95; softcover, 96 pp.
It has been a good year and some months for César Aira readers, as New Directions has released translations of a collection of short stories, The Musical Brain and Other Stories (spring 2015), and two of his novels: Conversations (summer 2014), and, this fall, Dinner. Some of Aira’s novels start out with a wild premise, while others lull readers for a while before changing into something unexpected. We are a fair number of pages into his newest work before the unnamed male narrator, an almost sixty-year-old bachelor, tells us what he witnesses on a live television news program in his hometown of Pringles, Argentina (Aira’s birthplace), as a small news crew investigates a rumor: “They were on their way to the Cemetery, because they’d been told that the dead were rising from their graves of their own accord. This was as improbable as an adolescent fantasy. It was, however, true.” The “living dead” are after the brains of the living, as many as they can ingest, for the endorphins. From their graves they make for the nearest homes:
The inhabitants of these modest houses were sleeping, many of them didn’t even wake up when their doors and windows came crashing down, and those who did only had time to see, or guess at through the darkness, the nightmarish bogeymen who leaned over their beds and opened their skulls with one bite. No house was spared, nor a single occupant therein, not even the babies in their cribs. Immediately after completing the cerebral suction, the corpses left and rejoined the cadaverous march, always in the direction of town.
News of their ravaging soon reaches the ears of other residents, and panic ensues, as well as preparations. On most occasions when facts meet speculation in an Aira novel the ground shifts under the feet of even the most resolute and rational citizen:
The movies and, before the moves, the ancestral legends those stories are based on, had produced in the population a basic state of incredulity; at the same time as it prepared them for an emergency (they had only to remember what the protagonists of those movies had done), it prevented them from reacting because everybody knew, or thought they knew, that fiction is not reality. They had to see with their own eyes somebody who had seen [the living dead] (with their own eyes) to be convinced of the terror of reality, and even then they weren’t convinced. It was one of those cases in which the real is irreplaceable and not representable. Unfortunately for them, the real was instantaneous and without future.
The phrase “without future” is a pregnant one in Dinner, as the narrator is a bankrupt, “fat, wrinkled, stooped” man forced to return to his mother’s home and live “off her retirement income (if you can call that living).” However, his mother won’t say or hear a negative word about him: “In short, a complete denial of reality was in play. And her life was reduced to that denial; I had reduced her to that.” What is true, for “Mama,” is knowing the names, and so the history, of the townsfolk, and this is an ability missing in her son. “Perhaps that’s why I’d done so poorly in business. Someone who didn’t know the name of the neighbor he saw every day couldn’t possibly be trusted.” The night before the attack they had been dinner guests of a man who knew the people of Pringles like Mama, but his collection of automatons, oversize dolls, and atlases—“junk,” in her word—everything, in fact, even down to his way of lighting his home, disgusts her. This is the dinner that occupies the narrator’s mind until he sees the broadcast that shows his fellow citizens killed in savage ways.
At the point where the living dead appear, the first-person narrative tapers off and we are moved into an omniscient narrative where the movements of town officials—the mayor, the medical examiner, and so on—their frantic deliberations, and their internal thoughts, are presented to us via the medium of the television. Caught up in the rhythm of the telling where we wonder how things will turn out, we are also aware that Aira is doing something with the narrative. The suspension of disbelief we can experience when reading is not something, to my mind, that Aira is interested in creating for his audience; it’s more likely that he wants the tension of two opposing forces—what we might call the narrative drive that propels the story and critical appraisal of how material is being shaped—to coexist. We know we are reading a fiction that we were led into thinking might be about the dinner given by a generous host to his friend and his friend’s ungrateful mother, and the fall-out of that, though as it turns out, the word dinner applies equally to what the undead make of the living.
Dinner originally appeared in 2005, and it revisits, briefly, aspects of The Seamstress and the Wind (1994; English edition 2011), where Aira has a sentient wind fall in love with the female character and that defends it against “the Monster.” One of the other characters looking on is “unhinged and dazed as a zombie.” The figure of speech there is given more depth here. In the opening pages of Dinner an “old windup toy” that their host shows them spurs the narrator to recollect a visit to the home of seamstresses as a child. What has stayed with him is that “the floor was missing from the room where the seamstresses were working… the entire room was one great big pit, very deep…” Later that same night the Cemetery’s pits empty their contents. The automatons that bring joy to their unnamed host parallel the living dead, whose actions are as monotonous—soulless—as the intricately made figures controlled by springs and cranks. The living dead also have a parallel in the narrator who, as mentioned, doesn’t think of his existence (“if you can call that living”) in a positive way. “I didn’t go out anymore. . . . I lived like a shut-in,” he tells his friend, which is akin to being entombed.
If that sounds like reductionism, then it should be emphasized that in the hurly-burly of the killings there is little time for the reader to draw these threads together. It is after the final page that these echoes, variations, and explorations of what it means to be dead to or in the world stand out. In 2009 Bomb magazine conducted an interview with Aira, and he talked about how happenstance can enter his fiction and what he then does with it:
For example, if I’m writing a scene about a couple, a marital spat in a house with closed windows and doors. . . . So, I make the bird appear flapping around among the furniture, and I find a way for the bird to have a reason for appearing in the story. It could be a mechanical bird designed by an engineer who was the woman’s first husband, whom her present husband thought was dead, but the engineer faked his own death to escape justice—he had invented killer mechanical pigeons. He continues to live under a false identity, and she’s discovered him and is blackmailing him. . . . It could be this or anything else. In spite of all my admiration for Surrealism and Dadaism I never liked the mere accumulation of incongruous things. For me, everything has to be sewn together in a very conventional fashion. I always think of something. And what I think of also changes the course of the plot. Since the next day something different will happen at the café, the plot continues to change accordingly. That sinuous thread in my novels is more interesting to me, more writeable, than a linear plot.
Despite sudden intrusions, Aira’s attention doesn’t waver from the main lines of his books (it helps that the novel form is capacious), and, in the case of Dinner, its main thematic concerns: the hapless, self-immuring narrator is mirrored by the automata and the audacious assault by the living dead (on a larger scale, a defunct society attacks the current society); childhood pits lead to the opening of fearsome graves (buried memories, both individual and familial, burst into the open); and domiciles double as tombs. Anything incongruous would bury these links.
Just as important as establishing parallels is Aira’s sense of humor. The pulpy, sensational plot gives him new fields to explore, as in these passages:
The metaphor of the [living dead's] hunt didn’t actually fit very well; it was more like a flower tasting, or a tasting of juicy statues immobilized by terror and surprise.
There was nobody who didn’t lament the community’s insistence on lining the streets with trees.
Some improvised struggles during the desperate fury of contact; others waited and readied themselves with sticks, irons, chains, and furniture to hurl. Half a dozen sons in the prime of their youthful vigor defending their old parents against one moldy arthritic corpse didn’t necessarily have to be a battle lost before it began. Yet, it was.
Humor goes from surface to bottom of Dinner. When the narrator—and it’s a nice touch that he never mentions the names of his mother and friend—is dumbfounded by the appearance of the undead he calls it “improbable,” and the omniscient narrative voice, to repeat, describes the Pringlesians as needing “to be convinced of the terror of reality, and even then they weren’t convinced,” even as the skulls of their loved ones are ripped open before their eyes. (For an Argentinean writer—Aira was born in 1949—perhaps the country’s Dirty War of the 1970s is alluded to here. Grim humor indeed, if this is so.) The medical examiner can only speculate on why the dead are eating brains, but offers no reason as to how they arose. “Perhaps ancient and latent wisdom deep in humankind knew what science still didn’t.” Since death is not the end then nothing can be fixed.
Early in Dinner it’s shown that the narrator is somewhat envious of the ability of Mama and his friend to have fixed in their heads who is who in Pringles: “on the lips of my mother and my friend, each [name] sounded like a chime of memories, empty memories, sounds.” He has a few recollections of his own, but none attached to people’s identities, and they are therefore useless in the context of what happens as the novel goes on. Central figures in many of César Aira’s novels are alienated from others for a variety of reasons (and often internally confused as to who they are and why they behave as they do), and though they live in groups (societies seem simultaneously theoretical and actual) they are unable to get along easily in what is agreed by others as the real world. There may be no real world possible if the dead can re-appear and slaughter their descendants.
Canadian writer Jeff Bursey is the author of two novels, Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010). His articles, interviews, and reviews have appeared in Numero Cinq, The Quarterly Conversation, The Winnipeg Review, and other print and online journals.
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