The new writing

by craigepplin

I’m really happy that this essay (or manifesto) has been translated into English. A few years ago I did my own rough version of it so I could teach it in a writing class, so it’s good to see a polished version out there. It’s by César Aira, who I think is the most important writer working today in Latin America. There are all sorts of reasons for this, not least because he is so engaged with the tradition of the avant-garde. His engagement is unique because he isn’t archiving it through representation–as a lot of Roberto Bolaño’s work did, with the short novel Amberes perhaps an exception–but rather seeking to extend its vitality. The goal is laid out clearly in “The New Writing” (which is probably his most referenced text by scholars of his work): to invent procedures for making works (or not), instead of inventing works themselves. Some version of conceptualism, in other words.

I talk a lot about all this in some forthcoming work, so I’m not going to go into detail. (In any case, this blog has had plenty of Aira references.) I just want to point out one little fragment of a sentence: “A work of art will always have value as an example, and one example is just as good as another.” That last part is something Aira always insists on. In other places he even puts it more radically. I don’t have an exact quotation at this very moment, but the idea is that there are no examples, because every example is the thing itself. There are only singularities; the sorts of generalizations implied by our notion of the example are tendentious, themselves produced by radically singular contingencies. One of my favorite glosses on this aspect of his poetics is by Graciela Montaldo: “Everything in Aira’s work,” she writes, “seems to be one.

This philosophy of literature corresponds not just to conceptual machinations, but also to the extreme plot twists and perverse becomings that characterize his novels. I’ve always loved this passage from the end of the novel “Ghosts.” (It’s been published in English, but this translation is mine):

Among the people listening to him, among those twice-married couples united in a common quest for happiness, two individuals had snuck in, two men who were completely naked, their skin covered in lime dust. They listened too, but only so they could laugh their great ferocious laughs at every moment. More than laughs they were tremendous howls, exaggeratedly sarcastic. Since no one heard them, or saw them, the conversation carried on with a courteous and relaxing rhythm. They shouted louder and louder, as if they were competing with each other. As dirty as they were they looked like bricklayers, and also because of the way they were built, rather small, solid, with little feet and rough hands. Their toes were widely spaced, like the toes of savages. They acted like spoiled kids. But they were adults. A bricklayer that happened to pass by, carrying a bucket of scraps to the trash chute, stretched out his free hand and without stopping grabbed one of their cocks and pulled on it as he kept walking. The member stretched out over two meters, three, five, ten, all the way to the sidewalk. When the bricklayer let go it snapped back into place with a strange harmonics, which resonated against the tiles that hadn’t been laid yet, against the stairs without marble and the deep holes without elevators, like the thickest string on a Japanese harp. The two ghosts multiplied their frenetic laughter, louder than ever. The architect was in the middle of saying how electricians lie, how painters lie, how plumbers lie.

These bestial, naked characters kind of speak (or howl) for themselves. In any case, their imposing but minimal physicality is expressive of something: expressive, I’d say, of an odd concatenation: the vibrations of a stretched-out cock snapping back to a normal length with the raging laughter of the ghosts with the chain of affirmations that ends the passage. The three occurrences make no sense together. There is no drama and no development. The only thing that stitches it all together is the joy of these strange becomings: the “frenetic laughter, louder than ever” of the ghosts. Everything is an example of itself. A roll of the dice or an I Ching hexagram. Necessity is subordinated to chance.