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MLN 122.2 (2007) 371-399

Cure for the Capitalist Headache:
Affect and Fantastic Consumption in César Aira's Argentine "Baghdad"
Dierdra Reber
Emory University

An unlikely addition to the Latin American literary establishment, César Aira is the unapologetic source of persistent contradictions: he is intensely prolific yet lacking any clear masterpiece, committed to literature but opposed to institutionality, adamant that the logic of a plot should be consequent with itself while thoroughly indifferent to the matter of external verisimilitude (the plot has no need to be consequent with reality), admiring of canonical literary greats—ironically, nineteenth-century realists in particular—while adhering to a writerly practice that those same realist authors would likely consider one of terminally substandard imperfectionism—a refusal to self-edit,1 a chronic and wanton mixing of genres (realism, fantasy, science fiction, suspense thriller, comedy), a confounding oscillation between respect for and violation of formalistic convention. This imperfectionism has only grown more systematic in the same measure that Aira has distanced himself from his "historical"—albeit heavily parodic—novels of the 80s and early 90s anchored in the characters and topoi of nineteenth-century Argentina (e.g., Juan Manuel Rosas, British naturalism, los indios, and the journey to the interior) and given himself over to the development of his signature [End Page 371] style of semi-autobiographical and matter-of-fact absurdity largely set in contemporary Buenos Aires and, often, in his own neighborhood of Flores. Aira's work is bizarre, as unsettling as it is entertaining. It reads as though in homage to postmodernity's renunciation of organized social symbology (the so-called fall of master narrative) and substitute enthusiasm for anti-teleological associative thought. If there ever was a champion of metonym and foe of metaphor, it is Aira.

Although Aira has been writing and translating for decades, it is only in the past few years that he has found solid international success. As recently as 1999, Aira was described by Clarín as an "escritor de culto, de esos que no llegan fácilmente al público masivo" with a much more modestly sized "público entusiasta de unos 3.000 lectores" (see "Nadie es profeta en su tierra"). Aira's predilection for small local publishing houses completes the profile of a quirky and provincial literary eccentric. His "editorial favorita" is Beatriz Viterbo, whose inaugural 1991 publication was his series of university lectures on Copi, casting Aira as "un poco el padrino de la editorial" (Epplin and Penix-Tadsen). But the Spanish republication during the last ten years of his earlier works, most recently in alternation with newer novels (Mondadori), as well as the French translation of a significant list of titles (Librairie Compagnie) have given his readership transatlantic dimensions. In fact, the aforementioned Clarín article was published in honor of Aira's distinction as one of the writers of the year in Spain; ironically, then, the very occasion that called for a presentation of Aira as an unsung local writer marked the beginnings of his transition to international literary stardom.

Aira has become not only a darling of large-scale publishing houses, but also of critics. A 2005 colloquium on Aira's work convened by his French-language translator Michel Lafon, attended by scholars from Argentina, Venezuela, France, Spain, and the U.S., and consecrated in the subsequent publication of its proceedings by host Université Stendhal-Grenoble 3 (César Aira, une révolution), may well point to his literary "coronación" (Kohan 79). An even earlier "coronation" consists of Aira's 1998 inclusion among the likes of Arjun Appadurai, Gilles Deleuze, Julia Kristeva, Toni Morrison, Edward Saïd, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in a group of ten philosophico-literary "guest speakers" whose textual excerpts accompany the works of 100 contemporary visual artists bound together in cream (a "portable exhibition in a book"), an act of anthologization that locates Aira in an elite echelon of writers who are, in the words of the project's lead curator...


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