The Seamstress and the Wind by César Aira (trans Rosalie Knecht). New Directions Publishing, 132 pp. $12.95.
In his 2006 novel The Literary Conference, César Aira is a writer, translator, and mad scientist who has gone to the eponymous literary conference in order to clone the world-famous Mexican author Carlos Fuentes, this in turn in order to take over the world. In How I Became A Nun, Aira is a 6 year-old Argentine who at some points is clearly a girl, at others a boy. In his most recently translated work, The Seamstress and the Wind, César is a writer sitting in a cafe in Paris, writing a book called The Seamstress and the Wind, in which . . .
But to suggest that Aira’s work is autobiography could not be further from the truth. Although autobiographical in structure, in content his novels are the complete opposite. Chris Andrews, translator of Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, How I Became a Nun and Ghosts (The Literary Conference was done by Katherine Silver), has described Aira’s work as “perversely pseudo-autobiographical.” I would go so far as to call them anti-autobiographies, in the sense that they either tell us nothing biographical at all, or provide us with no key to decipher what is and is not. In essence they are filled with pure, blinding fiction. In Aira’s own words, “In my work, everything is invented.”
If Aira is not a mad scientist and if he is not a protogynous hermaphrodite, then what, or who, is he? He is an Argentine writer and translator, originally from Coronel Pringles and who has lived most of his life in Buenos Aires. He writes at least two novels a year at the rate of a couple of pages a day, sitting in cafes, writing on paper from Casa Wussmann, where the bills for the national mint are printed, using a Montblanc pen. He has written over 60, possibly 70, novels—it is difficult to tell, as he seems to publish constantly with a cavalcade of small publishers, along with larger names such as Mondadori and Tusquets Argentina. Of his own process of publishing, “it’s as if I were asking readers to search for the hidden item, giving them a little suspense. It’s not easy for them to find one of my books.”
Bolaño, in The Incredible César Aira, published as a preface to New Directions’ edition of Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, states that “it’s frustrating, because once you’ve started reading Aira, you don’t want to stop.” Of course, it’s even more frustrating for English-language readers, for whom there are only five novels translated and in print, the most recent of which is The Seamstress and the Wind.
This novel, 132 pages long, divided into 24 short bursts we would call chapters, is ostensibly about an event in César’s childhood and its repercussions: Omar, a friend, is thought to have disappeared in the back of a truck heading for Patagonia. Omar’s mother, Delia Siffoni, seamstress, embarks on a cross-country journey in a local taxi, equipped with sewing kit and wedding dress, toward the End of the World. Once “all the protagonists in the adventure are on stage,” as Aira puts it, he attempts to make an orderly list of them, including Delia, the taxi driver Zaralegui’s corpse, the wedding dress carried by the wind, and a mysterious little blue car. The antagonist, the Wind, already encountered in various guises, is yet to make his bold and unadorned appearance, and we are yet to find out whether or not he has in fact fallen in love with Delia.
This novel is a prime example of Aira’s use of folk tales and myths of varying kinds, not merely in terms of playfulness and frivolity but also in the generation of more general meaning. Marcelo Ballvé has said, in these pages, of Aira’s works in relation to folk tales: “They have the same compressed nature, the same power to suggest a universe of meaning despite being short texts.” Viewed from this aspect, Aira is very much in the same league as Italo Calvino; however, viewed from the vantage of his uses and abuses of genre fiction, whether it be detective, adventure, science fiction, or romance, he displays aspects of Georges Perec. In his idiosyncrasies and entirely inconceivable fictional ploys, such as a 6-year-old narrator who somehow is of both genders, qualities of Harry Mathews are intimated. Perhaps Aira is an infernal child of the Oulipo, of which Calvino, Perec, and Mathews were/are members, a group of predominantly European writers formed in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, interested in “the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy” by using certain constraints. This is not quite the case and yet is telling for at least three reasons: firstly, the unofficial and yet undisputed Patron Saint of the Oulipo is the enigmatic dandy and brilliant experimentalist Raymond Roussel, whose fictions Aira’s also bring to mind (in fact, Bolaño described Aira as reminiscent of “Roussel on his knees bathed in blood”); secondly, Oulipo is a contraction of Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle—workshop of potential literature—which is precisely what Aira produces, potential fictions, potential until the moment of creation in the sense that they seem to have never existed previously; thirdly, Aira clearly operates under constraints and mechanisms of his own, most notably what he refers to as el continuo or huida hacia adelante.
The continuum or flight forward: a process in which Aira engages to propel his fiction ahead; it involves no editing of one’s own work and a will to constant motion, the motion of constant creation. It is best described by example. The Seamstress and The Wind opens thus:
These last weeks, since before coming to Paris, I’ve been looking for a plot for the novel I want to write: a novel of successive adventures, full of anomalies and inventions. Until now, nothing occurred to me, except the title, which I’ve had for years and which I cling to with blank obstinacy: “The Seamstress and the Wind.” The heroine has to be a seamstress, at a time when there were seamstresses . . . and the wind her antagonist, she sedentary, he a traveler, or the other way around: the art a traveler, the turbulence fixed. She the adventure, he the thread of the adventures. . . . It could be anything, and in fact it must be anything, any whim, or all of them, if they begin transforming into one another. . . . For once I want to allow myself every liberty, even the most improbable. . . . Although the most improbable, I should admit, is that this plan will work.
This passage demonstrates many of Aira’s trademarks: his practice of el continuo, the unadorned and clear nature of his syntax, his generation of equivalences via transformation and paradox (if the art is traveller, and the traveller the Wind, is the art, the novel, equivalent to the Wind after these successive transformations? How is the turbulence fixed?), and the elastic nature of el continuo: from potential fiction, we rejoin Aira in his Parisian cafe contemplating its impossibility. We also catch glimpses of Kafka and Beckett, albeit in a vastly more optimistic setting and immediately see how gifted Rosalie Knecht, first-time translator, is.
So as of yet we have two plots: Aira’s attempted construction of a text in Paris and the fable of the Seamstress and the Wind. A third plot introduced is one of connections, equivalences and transformations, translations if you will, between the first two. After the cast of characters, we are informed:
Of course, it’s not that simple. There are other characters, who are now going to appear. . . . Or better yet, no. It’s not that there are other characters (these are all of them) but revelations will transform these characters into others, making room for encounters that Delia Siffoni never would have expected, neither she nor any of the other Delia Siffonis in the world, with all of them beginning, there in Patagonia, a dance of transformations.
A system of equivalences is set up whereby Patagonia and Paris are elided, Aira, comfortable in his cafe, is translated into Delia Siffoni on the “great gray plateau,” and the novel, under these transformations, becomes Ventarrόn, the Wind.
These concepts are most obvious in The Literary Conference, where Aira informs us that he will not only have “to switch levels and begin with the Fable that provides the tale’s logic” (analogous to a shift from Aira’s tale to Delia’s Fable) but he will also “have to do a translation.” Only later do we find out that this will not be a translation in the most common sense, but one between languages of ideas, abstracted systems of communication:
Here I must attempt a first and partial translation. The “Mad Scientist” is, of course, me. The identification of the Genius may end up being more problematic, but it’s not worth wasting time with conjectures: it is Carlos Fuentes.
These equivalences have many consequences including the paradoxical result of Aira being able now to move forward in many directions at once. Thus the following is not merely a description of the natural world.
the world, life, love, work: winds. Great crystalline trains that whistle through the sky. The world is wrapped in winds that come and go… But it’s not so simple, so symmetrical. The actual winds, the air masses displaced between differences in pressure, always go to the same place in the end, and they come together in the Argentinian skies; big winds and little winds, the cosmopolitan oceanic as much as the diminutive backyard breezes: a funnel of stars gathers them all together, adorned with their velocities and orientations like ribbons in their hair, and brings them to rest in that privileged region of the atmosphere called Patagonia.
This passage serves at least a double function as reflection on the novel: more than just the novel of words (in this context, words are the analogues of the “actual winds”) but of that which the words communicate, the novel of ideas. This process of uncovering and subsequent discovery implicates the reader in the writing, as an active participant. No wonder Aira has referred to literature as a series of Russian dolls. On one level, The Seamstress and the Wind is a beautiful, strange fable, a love story to Patagonia, alternating between frivolity, insight and horror. On another, it is a tale of ideas, how they may shift and transform when described using verbal language. This would be enough for me to thoroughly enjoy any novel. And yet, as we know, a Russian doll contains many more than two babushkas.
Hugo Bowne-Anderson is an Australian writer and mathematician. He is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute of Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden.
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