CONVERSATIONS: Original and Intelligent

conversationsConversations by César Aira
translated by Katherine Silver

~ post by Ben

It’s a wonderful feeling to discover a new author. Whether in a sparkling new debut, or that recommendation which you’ve put off reading, there is a particular freshness when opening the title of someone you’ve never read before. Newly released translations can act as gateways in this same way. They lead us to entirely distinct literary traditions and authors we are otherwise unfamiliar with, the metaphor being language as our key to open the door, permitting us to enter into rooms previously unseen. Following the metaphor through, Conversations by César Aira was my introduction to a whole new wing of the house.

Born in Coronel Pringles, Argentina, César Aira is author to more than seventy books, from novels to collections of stories and essays. Though Aira is a translator himself, the task of translating Conversations to English was undertaken by the co-director of the Banff International Literary Translation Center and award-winning literary translator, Katherine Silver. The result is one I believe both author and translator can be proud of.

The novel distinguishes itself early on. Our narrator suffers from some degree of insomnia and spends his nights reexamining the conversations he’s had during the day with his various friends. Though plural in title, Conversations is the recounting of one particular conversation. The topic concerns a Hollywood film that the narrator and his friend both saw on television the night before and a Rolex worn by a goat herder who appeared in the film. From there, Aira layers ideas and human tendencies to create an intricate thought experiment and exploration of social interaction. While the narrator asserts that his conversations typically revolve around intellectual topics, seldom falling into the trappings of low culture, he holds a fairly confident knowledge of celebrity and pop culture. Through this use of paradox and humor, Aira tangles us in the lines of faulty reasoning and degrees of separation which keep us from asserting a capital T, Truth. The story loops and engages us as we are left to maneuver the perceptions and misconceptions of our narrator and his memory, constantly pressing forward toward the novel’s conclusion.

Absurd and amusing, this slim tome (only 88 pages) blurs lines between fiction and philosophy and reality. The conventions of genre and labels are left behind without sacrificing accessibility or becoming obtuse, which is no small feat. Aira has created a book which acts as an outpost on the frontiers of what a novel can be. An excellent representation of Aira’s fuga hacia adelante style, Conversations is the perfect book for the philosophy reader or the literati savant. Intelligent without pretension, Conversations is perhaps one of the most original books I’ve read in recent memory, and as we are inundated with novels recycling the same repetitive structures and plot-lines, this is a title which I definitely recommend picking up.

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