Cesar Aira: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter

This book, about a supposedly true incident in which the German landscape painter Johann Rugendas was hit multiple times by lightning while painting in the mountains of Argentina, explains itself:

Were all the storytellers to fall silent, nothing would be lost, since the present generation, or those of the future, could experience the events of the past without needing to be told about them, simply by recombining or yielding to the available facts, although, in either case, such action could only be born of a deliberate resolution. And it was even possible that the repetition would be more authentic in the absence of stories. The purpose of storytelling could be better fulfilled by handing down, instead, a set of “tools,” which would enable mankind to reinvent what had happened in the past, with the innocent spontaneity of action. Humanity’s finest accomplishments, everything that deserved to happen again. And the tools would be stylistic. Art was more useful than discourse.

Aira seems to romanticize the pure talent and inspiration that Rugendas possesses. It is chance, and it is individual, and his being struck by lightning is bluntly symbolic. In opposition to this spontaneity are the determining forces of history and culture. Rugendas’s solution, according to Aira? Get rid of history and remove the weight. Aira’s book is not a great one, maybe because Aira uses such a light touch to avoid piling Rugendas’s story up with what we would see as “history.” What remains is brightly optimistic, but ephemeral, since in Aira’s new world, art is a perpetual action and only the unaesthetic tools to create it survive over time.