César Aira puzzles and entertains

If you ploughed through Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories long after the Freshman Studies assignments were over and read Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” for fun over the summer, then look no further than César Aira’s “The Literary Conference” for your next read. Aira is one of his native Argentina’s most prolific contemporary writers—he’s written over 70 books, including novels, short stories and essays. While Aira is relatively unknown in the Anglophone world—only about ten works are available in English – he’s getting popular fast. “The Literary Conference,” published in 2010, is one of his most recent works, and as it’s short, fun to read and incredibly wacky, it serves as a perfect introduction to Aira’s world.

“The Literary Conference” features a man named César, an author and translator, who appears to be the embodiment of the iconic mad scientist trope. César, of course, wants to rule the world, and, as a mad scientist, he hatches a diabolical plan to do so. But first, he decides to solve a mysterious puzzle that has defeated all previous attempts at answering it and claim the treasure that it protects. With this money, he could do anything he wanted, but ruling the world is his priority, so he proceeds with his plan.

His plan, logically, consists of  using his newly invented cloning technology to create an army of clones of a carefully selected genius. But which genius to choose? Having considered carefully, César makes the obvious choice—celebrated Mexican author Carlos Fuentes. And coincidentally, both César and Fuentes have been invited to a literary conference. So, after solving the mystery, César ignores his newfound wealth and continues on to the conference.

From here on, the story very quickly devolves into the absurd. Having retrieved what he thought was Fuentes’ DNA, César starts the cloning machine and unwittingly releases an army of giant worms on the city. Having started as a discourse on genius and the individual, “The Literary Conference” finishes as a badly reviewed horror film from the ‘50s.

What “The Literary Conference” lacks in linear plot, it makes up for wholeheartedly in sharp prose, mindboggling asides and general hilarity. Aira—and by association his translator, Katharine Silver—handles his words and sentences in a way that is almost clinical, addressing the most ridiculous subjects as perfectly normal. This technique grounds the novel, preparing his readers for whatever might come and successfully bringing together a disparate plotline. This stylistic decision makes it a bit difficult to laugh at first—Aira seems to take his prose dead seriously. But as the storyline self-destructs, it gets easier and easier, and Aira’s prose becomes less severe and a bit more tongue-in-cheek.

By now, you’ve probably realized that the author and his protagonist share a name. The César of the novel is clearly a representation of the author himself—a warped, insane representation, but a representation nevertheless. This commentary on the role of the author, genius and the individual in his works poses more questions than it really answers; but it makes sure that “The Literary Conference” leaves you thinking—even if giant worms and clones mean you’re not really sure what you’re thinking about.