In Other Words

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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

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