THERE ARE NO WRITERS TODAY more inventive and frenetic than the Argentine novelist César Aira. In The Seamstress and the Wind (1994), a man commandeers the carapace of a giant prehistoric armadillo and turns it into a vehicle to chase after his wife, who has been unceremoniously tossed about the wilderness of Patagonia by the love-lorn wind. The narrator of Varamo (2002), a low-level state functionary in Panama, is so flustered when he finds that his salary has been paid in counterfeit money that he ends up composing the most important work of Latin American poetry. In Ghosts (1990), the Chilean construction workers of a high-rise in Argentina imbibe wine that has passed through the vaporous excretory systems of ghosts, a process that makes cheap booze divine. Philosophy, science fiction, irreverent humour, and scholarly erudition steep together in Aira’s writing. This playfulness isn’t afraid of producing cataclysms. The mad scientist narrator of The Literary Conference (1999) nearly destroys the world in a bid to make a passable clone of the great Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes. (And in La Silla Del Aguila [‘The Seat of Power’, 2002], one of his last novels before his death, Fuentes returned the compliment and imagined a future when Aira wins the Nobel Prize in 2020.)
However absurd, the surrealism of his work has not prevented Aira from being taken very seriously. His adventurous intelligence has earned him comparisons to his countryman Jorge Luis Borges. A notorious literary scrooge, the late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño—a writer credited with single-handedly reinventing the image of Latin American literature around the world—grudgingly described him as “one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today” and as the only contemporary novelist “who defies classification”.
FOR A WRITER ALREADY WELL INTO HIS 60S, this adulation comes after decades in the shade of other Latin American literary giants. Aira began his life away from the centre of things. He was raised in Coronel Pringles, a small provincial town south of the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires. Pringles often appears in his novels as a humble place, conscious of its own obscurity. As a young man, Aira made the inevitable move to Buenos Aires. There, he won the mentorship of the avant-gardist Osvaldo Lamborghini, who told him encouragingly that he was already a “great writer” and that he had more in common with Thomas Mann and Borges than his contemporaries. Thus inspired, Aira set about forging his own path on the Argentine literary landscape. He supported his writing initially through work as an editor and omnivorous translator of French and English. From the late 1980s onwards, he began to establish himself as a fixture in the world of Argentine letters, but even through the 1990s, he was dwarfed by better known figures in Argentina like Ricardo Piglia and the late Juan Jose Saer. Only in the last decade or so in Spanish—and in the last five years in English—has Aira begun to cement his place as one of the foremost novelists of Latin America and the most talked-about writer from Argentina.