The Novelist as Conceptual Artist: A Review of The Famous Magician by César Aira

The Novelist as Conceptual Artist: A Review of The Famous Magician by César Aira

Matthew Eatough

Under Review:
The Famous Magician, César Aira. Translated by Chris Andrews. New Directions, September 2022.

The Argentine writer César Aira’s latest novel to be translated into English, The Famous Magician, begins with a Faustian proposal: Given the chance, would you trade your ability to read for complete mastery over matter? For the ability to make the laws of physics do your bidding and bend them to your will?

This is the question that is posed to the novel’s narrator, a writer “past sixty, enjoying a certain renown” who resembles a fictionalized version of Aira, by Ovando, “a down and out” bookseller “with intellectual pretensions.” And just in case Aira’s narrator thinks this is a hypothetical question, Ovando concludes his offer with a concrete demonstration of his powers: the transformation of a cube of sugar into solid gold.

Ovando’s demonstration of his powers, and his insistence that Aira’s narrator can only possess them if he gives up reading and writing, spurs the narrator and his friends, over the length of Aira’s short novel, to elaborate reflections on the relationship between fiction and reality: Isn’t Literature itself an act of transformation? How are the inventions of fiction any different from the miraculous transubstantiation of sugar into gold? And when these feats are later narrated to others, as Aira’s alter ego repeatedly does throughout the novel (including to his reader), is there any real way to distinguish between the creative power of writing and Ovanda’s promised magic?

Of course, this is an Aira novel, and readers familiar with Aira’s trademark style will expect that these philosophical questions will share space with a dizzying array of incongruous narrative materials: an evil mastermind’s plot to take over the world; surgical operations that harvest brain waves from their patients; lush descriptions of the Nile River that read like pastiches of nineteenth-century travelogues; mundane accounts of the narrator’s problems with his computer; and absurdist digressions about how airport controls damage the international art scene by preventing artists from smuggling much-needed drugs onto planes.

The author of more than 100 books, most of them no longer than 100 pages, Aira is known for his signature blend of idiosyncratic philosophizing and pulpy sci-fi. This is a combination that we find not only in The Famous Magician, with its recourse to stock villains bent on world domination and inexplicable feats of magic, but in many of Aira’s other works in English translation, including The Literary Conference (where another fictionalized Aira tries to take over the world by cloning Carlos Fuentes) and The Dinner (where a conversation about mechanical toys yields to a cartoonish zombie apocalypse).

These disparate threads tend to be joined together in Aira’s fiction by abrupt, jarring transitions—as, for instance, when the narrator of The Famous Magician is strolling through the streets of Buenos Aires on a Saturday night looking for a cybercafe, only to suddenly find himself on the banks of the Nile. The explanation, we discover later, is a more prosaic kind of magic than we might at first have assumed: the narrator simply caught a last-minute flight to Egypt, spent a week at a conference in Cairo, and then decided to skip from one Saturday to the next in his narrative without informing the reader.

Digesting an Aira novel is thus somewhat akin to trying to hold an eel while watching a David Lynch film on a VR headset. You have some glimmerings of a general organizing idea (the eel), but you’re not sure exactly what it looks like or how it relates to what you’re seeing on your headset. But if you like the surrealist imagery and campiness of Lynch’s work; if you think that the image of someone holding an eel and watching VR is funny in a Dadaist sort of way; and if you’re willing to just lie back, giggle a bit, and enjoy the ride, then you’re in the right headspace for an Aira novel.

In The Famous Magician, we see this comic slipperiness in the novel’s investigation of fiction’s “magical” powers. At first glance, magic seems to operate in Aira’s narrative as a pretty straightforward allegory for art. The narrator’s publisher, Francisco, makes this exact point when he notes that poetry, “by not laying claim to anything true behind the words, created true realities that were airy, light, protean, iridescent …” But rather than stay focused on this metaphor, Aira keeps shifting the level at which he is exploring the connection between art and magic. At one moment, Ovando’s magic is an allegory for the creative process; at the next, Aira is pulling back the curtain and showing his reader how all narratives rely on technical “tricks”—summarizations of action and dialogue, leaps and breaks in the action, and other transformations of raw story into finished plot. And by the time we reach the conclusion of the novel, Aira seems content to let his plot spin out into a B-grade sci-fi romp, as if to show his reader a concrete example of such magical creation in action.

Perhaps the best way to understand how these pieces fit together is to see Aira’s novels as works of conceptual art. Aira has seemed to suggest as much in his own accounts of his writing, which include references to Artforum, Duchamp, Dada, and other touchstones of the contemporary art world, and which stress his technique of hurriedly writing without revising, or la huída hacia adelante (a phrase that Chris Andrew translates as “constant flight forward”).

Such a technique calls to mind similar experiments among the Surrealists and other avant-garde movements. It also casts Aira’s novels as aleatory takes on a central idea, which the reader experiences along with the author. When we careen from semi-serious discussions of the nature of Literature to pulpy genre fiction, or from flâneurist ramblings to mock art criticism, it gives us, as readers, a chance to answer the same question posed to Aira’s narrator: Would you like to live in the world of reality, where the only magic is the substitution of one object for another—a substitution that lies at the heart of capitalism (here manifested under the guise of Ovando’s bookselling)? Or would you prefer to live in the world of Literature, where transformation is an endlessly unfolding process that can lead you from one adventure to another—all without any need for logic, consistency, or any of the other limitations of reality?

Matthew Eatough is Associate Professor of English and Affiliate Faculty of Black and Latino Studies at Baruch College, City University of New York. He has published widely on African literature, science fiction, and the history of modernism. His latest research focuses on the translation practices of Anglo-American small presses. You can find him on Twitter.

Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned by an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. The author and editors had no prior acquaintance. It was edited by Zachary Gillan and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.

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