César Aira’s The Literary Conference (trans. Katherine Silver, 2010) didn’t wow me as much as it seems to have some others (I enjoyed Ghosts more), although it has its high points. The novel begins with the narrator, also named César Aira, solving a riddle of hidden treasure hundreds of years old before the eyes of an entire town, becoming rich in seconds as “the hero of the Macuto Line.” This is what he does accidentally in his off time: by day he is a translator, writer, and a scientific genius who plans world domination by attending a literary conference and creating an army of clones of Carlos Fuentes. The book, then, is a kind of ego fantasy—I was reminded of the U.S. writer Mark Leyner (who I haven’t thought of for quite some time), particularly his novel Et Tu, Babe. Leyner’s novel is even more over-the-top in its surrealism and narcissism, whereas Aira aims for a more conspicuously literary style.
Perhaps I should say “mimics” such a style, because one of the key themes running through the book undercutting its narcissism is a meditation on the narrator’s “vampirism” in relation to others in order to build himself out of other people. When he clones Carlos Fuentes, he explains, he is cloning “style cells” that contain Fuentes’s originality. Here the fictional Aira gives us a portrait of the real Aira, the writer known for producing a multitude of short books each with a distinct personality. Scott Esposito, recently responding to a longer essay on Aira (which I should say I haven’t had the time to read much of yet), sums up Aira’s approach to literature as a rejection of the idea of creating a unified world in the large novel, and thus a refusal of modernism and postmodernism, both of which question the capacity of the novel but do everything possible to maintain its world-building capacity. Instead, “Aira leads us toward a realignment of values in our literature, where representing totality is unnecessary.” Instead of the long novel that tries to encompass the world in a single authorial style, a multitude of shorter works that keep moving on to the next style. This idea seems plausible enough, yet in The Literary Conference Aira points to how this new literary mode itself might draw on world-dominating impulses that trace back to the modernism and postmodernism it replaces.