David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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.


  1. I recently heard Oliver Sacks read his piece (was it published in the New Yorker? I felt I had read it before…) about a man struck by lightning which unfolded or released in him an extraordinary musical talent—being struck by lightning not ALWAYS symbolic in other words (his other example in the piece was a woman who had surgery to remove a brain tumor & had her personality transformed in beneficial ways as a result, including a passion for music that was extraordinarily rewarding).

    I am in the thick of the WORST run of work-related deadlines but will hope to see you & N. soonish!

  2. Wow, finally a Latin American reference among the extremely Euro-centrist —with some (NORTH)American crumbs—Blogs! Congratulations!

  3. Oh? Look back and you will find Donoso, Rulfo, Borges, Bioy Casares, Bolano, alongside references to Infante, Roa Bastos, Asturias, Lezama Lima, and Lins. And I mean to read Arguedas soon.

  4. How great, Donoso is my favorite, ‘The obscene bird of night’, especially and ‘El lugar sin limites’ (don’t know the translation). And Rulfo, such magic in his ‘Pedro Paramo’ as well as the short stories of ‘El llano en llamas’. Roa Bastos is our Latin American Joyce (Yo, el supremo). Lezama Lima, Infante and so may of the caribbean (Carpentier…)are among the finest (Luis Rafael Sanchez, for instance, and obvioulsy Severo Sardyu), so rich and musical. You are right, sorry for the resented tone but sometimes I feel that way regarding Lat American writers! Thanks!!

  5. Hi again, if you plan to read ARguedas (I’m guessing ‘Los rios profundos’) it would be a good idea to include also Rosario Castellano’s ‘Balun Canan’ (the indigenist problem), just a suggestion! Cheers!

  6. Donoso is my favorite as well, at least for Obscene Bird—has El Lugar sin Limites been translated? And Pedro Paramo is up there as well.

    As long as you’re here, may I ask your opinion on a few others in the queue, whom I haven’t read yet? Arlt, Benedetti, Saer, Lugones, Ocampo, Onetti, Wilcock, and Felisberto Hernandez? Any other suggestions?

    (And as far as Spanish fiction goes, how about Benet and Goytisolo?)

  7. Oh, how nice (and late). you must read Onetti, ‘Juntacadaveres’, ‘Para una tumba sin nombre’ and the short stories, my favorite” ‘El infierno tan temido’. ARlt is incredible, very marginal and foundational in Argentina, especially his ‘Juguete rabioso’, Benedetti I find irregular, though some of his stories, ‘La noche de los monstruos’ and novels ‘La borra del cafe’ are pretty, his poetry too!. Felisberto Hernandez is also an extravagance worth reading. My favorite ‘Las hortensias’ a mixture between soft porno and monstrosities! Which Ocampo, Silvina or Victoria? Go for the short stories. They were all hanging out there in the Revista Sur in Argentina, under father Borges. Also, Maria Luisa Bombal should go right up in your list! Thanks for your feedback.
    ps. Juan Benet is a must, also his short stories and Goytisolo is one of the best spanish contemporary novelists. he has a lot of demanding (postmodernist) novels, but if you want to start with one, I would say ‘La Chanca’ (sorry that i don’t know the translations). Also Javier Marias, ‘A heart so white’ (what a novel, even if you don’t like the author), and ‘Tiempo de silencio’ by Luis Martin Santos.

  8. Thanks much for the tips! It’s hard to find English-language resources on a good number of these authors. I meant Silvina Ocampo, but only because I hadn’t heard of Victoria.

    I read “A Heart So White,” but something about it did not quite click for me. I found the language and the style to be quite entrancing, but there was an…emptiness?…to it that was disconcerting. I had a similar experience with Machado de Assis’s “Bras Cubas,” actually. I couldn’t figure out what it added up to.

    Bombal looks very promising. Where would you recommend starting?

    So, so many books to read….

  9. Bombal’s production is brief but powerful. She has two short novels ‘La Amortajada’ y ‘La Ultima Niebla’, I think they’re both translated. And she has some beautiful stories, such as ‘El Arbol’ and ‘Las Islas Nuevas’. Thanks!

  10. I think you underestimate this novel.

  11. I actually found that Aira was undercutting romantic notions of talent and even the un-reapeatability of fated events. The ruminations of Rugendas on art deviate into a devicing of method (method about a method), and turns the meaning of art and of art history, into just a different series of the same method being reproduced.

    In the “Episode” and “The Hare”, Aira, who worked for many years as a translator, is caricaturizing lofty modernist ideas. He translated tons of popular English books, mystery, romance, etc., and I can’t help but think that as he was translating those popular genres…he was concocting his own method to turn them inside out, and in doing so managing to pull a rabbit out of the hat.

    Result: The reader is completely unprepared for Aira comes up with…comical bad dream scenario reminiscent of an acid trip, sprinkled with some historical facts and rolled into a marketable short novel.

    (In “How I became a Nun” there is an actual acid trip…cynide trip, to be exact.)

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