In Other Words
Dinner by César Aira
Dinner is the kind of book that goes by too fast the first time around and asks to be read twice, but whether you have the stomach to reread this absurdist novel by Argentine author César Aira is another matter. The novel begins with a languid description of a dinner the narrator has with a middle-aged friend. The narrator, himself a middle-aged man, has brought his mother along. The situation is all but torporinducing. The host lives in a house of curiosities, and after the dinner, he shows off his mechanical toys; some are complex miniature tableaux. This museum of oddities irritates the narrator’s mother — the host is wasting his money. Her resentment may be worsened by the fact that her own son is broke, and that the host has also acquired the door to her childhood home, which he has painted a garish color and installed as his own front door.
After the dinner, the tone abruptly shifts and what follows may be a sly commentary on the insignificance of mankind. At the local cemetery, the dead rise from their graves, attack the cemetery guard, and then invade the homes of unsuspecting townspeople. The elixir that the dead are after are endorphins (“in the cortex and the brain stem”), and the procedure to obtain these endorphins involves snapping the victim’s neck. This is interesting, but there is almost too much mass killing in the book with little suggestion of whether this is occurring in the narrator’s imagination, in a reality TV show gone bad, or in real life (whatever that might be). The answer to this question is barely hinted at in the last part of the book, which returns to its earlier languid tone.
Patti Smith writes that Aira’s characters “enter a shifting and tilting landscape of events that unhinge our temporal existence and render it phantasmagorical yet seemingly everyday in the unfolding.” Aira certainly peels away our sense of normal in the middle chunk of this novel. In her recent book,
M Train, Smith renders everyday rituals, like going to a café, into something magical. Aira shows us instead how quickly the everyday can morph into the absurdly nightmarish. This transformation of the ordinary into a possible nightmare is not as far from the American experience as was the case before mass shootings became, tragically, a commonplace occurrence.
The reader is never sure how much to trust the narrator. At the dinner, when the narrator’s mother and the host discuss the goings-on and “genealogies of all the town’s families,” the narrator tells us he is not interested in names. In fact, many of the coming fatalities will be anonymous townspeople. We know the narrator has an active imagination in the way he recounts a strange memory of the house of two seamstresses where his mother used to take him as a child. “Once when we went there, the floor was missing from the room where the seamstresses were working, or rather, a large part of it had been removed for renovations, or had fallen in, the entire room was one great big pit, very deep, with dark gullies full of crumbling dirt and rocks, and water at the bottom. The seamstresses, and their assistants and customers, were around the edges.”
Has the adult narrator become unhinged by his hopeless circumstances? “I’d taken refuge in my mother’s apartment and was living off her retirement income (if you can call that living).” Or is he simply relating to us the facts of a zombie invasion as it is occurring? “The shouts quieted down little by little. What had begun as a bedlam of shrieks and roars, warnings and pleas for help, slowly drained out into isolated expressions of death throes punctuated by silences.”
A prolific author, critic, and translator, Aira has published more than 80 books. As a writer, he operates on an interesting principle of “flight forward”
(fuga hacia adelante); in interviews he has said that instead of relying on editing, he simply improvises his way out of the corners he writes himself into. He does not believe in explanations: “The story is always about something unexplainable. The art of narration declines as explanations are added.” It’s not surprising then that his work, including his quirky breakthrough novel, How I Became a Nun, transcends genres. Dinner is a zombie film sandwiched in a philosophical treatise; it combines absurdist terror with realist humor.
Amazingly, in this odd sandwich, Aira has painted a lifelike, masterful portrait of the narrator’s mother. For instance, the morning after the dinner, she sneers at everything the host represents, whereas her own son can do no wrong, except when he contradicts her. Aira’s view on the mystery of storytelling is echoed by another author, Flannery O’Connor, who also knew mothers well (and lived with hers as an adult): “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.” Aira’s novel may be a dream within a dream, but the mother anchors it: She is all too real. — Priyanka Kumar