“Maybe I was an example of not taking things so seriously, of not doing things so academically”: An Interview with Argentine Writer César Aira
Those were Aira’s words when I asked him about his influence on the literary production in Argentina. This prolific writer has created numerous novels, short stories and essays, which all together add up to almost 100 works. He confessed that some of his books were never published and they might become posthumous works. Even though he is almost 70 years old, he keeps expanding his literary collection by publishing 3-4 books per year. In June 2018, I had the honor of interviewing César Aira at a local pizzeria in Buenos Aires. Over the last 5 years I have written several articles about Aira’s novels and was very excited that he allowed me to interview him. Aira is known for being a very private person and he likes to go unnoticed by the press and people in general. This interview not only helped me learn more about Aira’s projects, but also let me learn that he enjoys having a tranquil life surrounded by his loved ones. During this interview we spoke of his upcoming novel, about a Roman soldier and his future “Aira Library” sponsored by the Emecé Publishing house. The following is an edited transcript.
María Cerdas: When did you start writing?
César Aira: When I was a teenager, I was a teenage reader. I do not know ... I think that I was 14 or 15 years old when me and one of my friends from in Pringles, my town, started writing poems and at the age of 17-18 years old I wrote my first novel.
M.C.: What was the title of the first novel that you wrote?
C.A.: It was titled Individual, but never got published. The same happened with 20-30 of the other novels that I wrote. It wasn’t until I turned 31 years old that I could publish my first novel.
M.C.: Your first novel that got published was Moreira, right?
C.A.: That was the first to get published because it was printed by an editor called Achával Solo, that was the name of the editorial too. He had a business partner, but it didn’t work out. So, he decided to work on his own and said: “I will never have a business partner again”. Then, he created Achával Solo publisher. He printed my novel, Moreira, but it didn’t have a cover. Also, this happened during the coup of 1976, the military coup. Achával disappeared, he hid, he went to Uruguay, I guess. The printed novel stayed in a basement and in 1981-1982, 1981 I think, my novel Ema la cautiva, got published. When this happened, Achával came back to the surface and said: "we put the cover on it, and we publish it" and Moreira actually got published. So, I don’t know which my first work is, the first printed book or the first published book (he laughs).
M.C.: Where is your novel that never got published?
C.A.: It’s at home, in a folder, gathering dust.
M.C.: Have you ever thought about publishing your unpublished works?
C.A.: Someone read just one of them. Those were like writing exercises that I did and had no intention of publishing them. Even though, my friend Osvaldo Lamborghini had read that novel and when Interface wrote his biography, they found letters in which he mentioned my unpublished novel several times. Then, they asked me about it. I looked for it in an unorganized folder that I have, and I found it. So, they made a copy of it and read it. It is the only one that has been read, but I do not know ... maybe these novels are meant to be posthumous publications.
M.C.: How was the beginning of your writing career? Your first novel Moreira was published during the so called “Guerra Sucia” “Dirty War” (1970-1980) Did this political event influence your early works in any way, or your writing in general?
C.A.: No, no, I have always lived apart. I live in my ivory tower, but last Sunday I visited a park and a young boy stopped me to sign his book. Then, he said: “you always say that you live in your ivory tower ... that reality does not interest you and yet I think that you are more realistic than any other writers who claim to be realistic. Those who claim to be realistic, in general, are very biased by ideology and an ideology is abstract” ... he mentioned one of my books in which the protagonist takes the bus #126. He said: “I also take the bus #126”. Then he says: “that's realism!” (he laughs).
M.C.: Which ones do you think are your most popular novels?
C.A.: There are groups of young readers or young people who do something called “top five” or the “top ten” of my popular novels, and many times or almost always, Ema is in the top five... my first novel. Although some readers do not like it as much, anyway. So, how is it, then? Has my whole life been a long decay? I started writing well and ... (he laughs) No, I think I am freer now. Just when the novel, El gran misterio, was published, a good friend read it and said: “You can do anything now”. It's like I don’t struggle anymore: the characters die, and in the following pages they’re alive… (he laughs).
M.C.: In a recent interview referring to your writing style, you spoke about doing something new that might not be too good. Basically, not following rules predetermined by the Literary Cannon and creating new rules. How have the audience and critiques responded to this?
C.A.: I had very good critiques before, but now they are tired of praising me and no longer write any critiques of my books. Almost no book reviews have appeared in newspapers, or in magazines. They sometimes ask me about the influence that I have had on others, but I do not think I had any direct influence. Let’s say, maybe if I had influenced anybody, it’s been an influence related to my attitude, that attitude of doing what I want, freeing myself from conventions. I want to tell you that there was once a Chilean author who wrote: “The problem of Chilean literature is that we have not had an Aira”. It's my attitude to publish in independent publishers, to make books of the size that I feel like it.
M.C.: What is the role of the characters in your novels?
C.A.: My characters are totally secondary. I am more interested in the plot, the adventure, the movement. My characters are my ideas, my words, my way of thinking, and all of my characters are me.
M.C.: Why do you prefer to depict marginal characters in your novels?
C.A.: My predilection for this type of characters is simply that I see them a lot in real life, the periodic crises that we, Argentines, have. There are many people who are left homeless, scrape the garbage, ... eh, they are people who enter my field of vision. I think it's quite realistic, right? In Las noches de flores these are the people who deliver pizza. This idea came from a situation ... One night I had gone with my wife to eat pizza at the “pizzeria”. My daughter was going to be returning home late from college and was going to be hungry, so we bought a pizza and took it home. Both of us walking down the street with the pizza was a nice job to do, wasn’t it? Deliver a pizza at night, that’s how I invented the characters in this novel who ends up being a totally different thing at the end of the novel.
M.C.: Do you think that your stories somehow reflect on the contemporary culture and society?
C.A.: No, I don’t think so because not many of my novels happen in the present. They are more like fables or novels with Indians that happen in an archaic time. Now, I am finishing a new novel. It’s about a Roman general, from ancient Rome who leads a legion to pacify the Pannonia region, and he experiences many adventures. This story appears in a historical document.
M.C.: How has your literature contributed to the literary production in Argentina?
C.A.: Actually, maybe because of the same thing that I said before: maybe I was an example of not taking things so seriously, of not doing things so academically, I do not know. Probably my writing planted a seed in the minds of young writers, but I do not know. I am the last one who could say if this is true, if what I have done is relevant. Now people are quite crazy because I usually appear in the lists of candidates for the Nobel Prize and the Argentines want to have the number one of everything, right? Messi, the Pope, and so on. When mid-October arrives, ah… they go crazy, they stop me in the street, it's difficult (he laughs). Luckily this year, when the middle of October arrived… nothing happened.
M.C.: What do you think would happen if you won the Nobel Prize?
C.A.: No, that would be terrible because I would turn into a public figure. I would lose my anonymity. People would follow me in the streets, riding their bikes, no that would be terrible (he laughs).
M.C.: When you walk on the streets now, do people recognize you?
C.A.: Not too many, luckily. There's also the fact that people are pretty shy, sometimes they recognize me. I have learned to recognize that look, right? But they do not say anything. Sometimes I think that I'm totally anonymous, it's not that I've done something bad or anything criminal (he laughs). I was in the fish shop buying fish because my wife had sent me to buy fish and there was a couple behind me. Behind this couple there was a boy, a young boy. The fishmonger, a very popular guy, tells me: “you are a writer, aren’t you?” and the cashier says: “do not start thinking that he reads your books. He saw them in a newspaper in a copy room.” Then the woman behind says: “He is not just another writer, he is a great writer!” and the boy who was behind says: “the best in Argentina”. I mean, everyone already knows me, if it wasn’t for the fishmonger, I would have gone so quiet thinking that no one recognized me, oh that's great! (laughs).
M.C.: How did this make you feel?
C.A.: It's okay, but I hope my fame does not spread, right? otherwise it could become very annoying. Honestly, I think that many of these people will never read any of my books. It’s just because my name appears in the newspaper. For example, the nanny that used to watch my little niece. Every Saturday I would stop by to visit my family. The nanny was totally infatuated with famous people. “You're famous”, she said. Surely this was because my uncle had shown her some of my pictures on a newspaper. I told her that I can appear in the newspapers, but hey, there are people who appear in the newspapers for crimes too. The nanny said: “But no, no, you appear on the important pages of the newspapers.” I told her that even though I appeared on the important pages of the newspapers, that people still talk negatively about me sometimes. Then she told me: “that's something else, that's something completely different and it's called envy”, she was confident about her opinion (he laughs).
M.C.: Do you have any future projects?
C.A.: I want to keep writing, I have been thinking about this… because for us Argentinians, Borges is an inescapable reference, right? After Borges turned 60 years his production declined a lot. His last good book was El hacedor, and he wrote it when he was like 60-61. After that he wrote stories like: El reporte de Brodie and El libro de arena which were not as good. I surpassed that age a long time ago, and that makes me wonder If I am declining too. This intrigues me and that’s why I will keep on writing, to determine whether or not my literary production will decline. I want to finish this Roman novel that I promised to my Spanish editor, and I'm also finishing a rewrite. This is the first time I’ve done it. I had published a science fiction novel many years ago called El juego de los mundos and now Emecé publishing house is creating the Aira library and rescuing old books of mine. I wanted to rewrite this novel because when I reread it, I found it to be very poorly written. So, I rewrote it completely, I expanded it. Let's see what will happen. Surely some reader will read both versions..., I think that the new one is much better, because I enlarged it, I gave it much more freedom, I wrote more. I do not know what people are going to say, people are cruel, and maybe they're going to say: “What a pity, the first version was better" (he laughs).
Maria A. Cerdas Cisneros
Assistant Professor of Spanish, Missouri State University
Translated by the author
Maria Cerdas Cisneros is an Assistant Professor of Spanish at Missouri State University. She holds a PhD in Latin American Literature from Texas Tech University.
Argentine writer César Aira is the author of over a hundred short stories, novels and essays. He has proclaimed himself as an avant-garde writer who engages in the “flight forward” type of writing. This self-developed style has given him the ability to innovate without conforming to generic expectations.
In our thirteenth issue, we feature two innovative, hard-to-define figures of Latin American letters: from the present, Mexican writer Mario Bellatin, and from the past, Chilean writer Juan Emar. Together with these authors, we highlight Latin American theatre for the first time with a script by Ramón Griffero, Nahuatl-language poetry by Martín Tonalmeyotl, plus interviews, book reviews, exclusive previews, and more from writers including Rosario Castellanos, César Aira, and Salgado Maranhão.