Cesar Aira: “The Musical Brain” from The New Yorker, 12/5/11

New Yorker Art: ISU Milner Library Special Collection, "A Passion For The Circus"

New Yorker Art: ISU Milner Library Special Collection, "A Passion For The Circus"

I don’t know who explained this rule to me; maybe it was the product of my own speculations and fantasies. That would have been typical: I was always inventing stories and machinations to make sense of things I didn’t understand, and I understood almost nothing.

It’s Fellini on the pampas, the sort of thing you might expect from an avant-garde Argentine – or a five year old boy used to inventing stories and machinations. In his Book Bench interview, translator Chris Andrews says: “It’s a bit like watching a brilliant, mischievous mathematician at the blackboard, working through a proof: he’s skipping the ‘obvious’ steps and at some point he may start pulling your leg.” Fasten your seat belt and enjoy the ride.

The story starts off quite traditionally: A little boy is out to dinner with his family. An unusual event for this family, not due to any poverty but simply because “my father’s austere habits and my mother’s invincible suspicion of any food she hadn’t prepared herself.” There is the slight oddity of diners carrying boxes of books to a table ruled by Sarita Subercasseaux, who later became the founder of the town library and high school headmistress. But the boy realizes there must’ve been a book drive for what would become the library. Yes, that would make sense.

Except – and here we get our first hint that this is not your typical story – in an aside he relates how in adulthood he asked his mother about Sarita, and was assured she’d died before he was born. Unmarried, childless, “the very image of sterility. I was quite sure of that.” We’re often sure of things before we realize they aren’t so.

Back in the present of the story, the Musical Brain comes onto she scene. Other diners are saying it’s on display in the lobby of the theatre next to the restaurant. The Brain had been circulating around town for a while as various families borrowed it:

….the reason for borrowing this new magical device was sheer curiosity (although perhaps there was also a touch of superstition)…..on the one hand, there were those who tried to get rid of the Brain after the first night, with the excuse that the music stopped them sleeping; on the other hand were those who built elaborate niches and pedestals, then tried to use their expenses as a pretext for prolonging the loan indefinitely. The association soon lost track of where the Brain was, and those who, like us, hadn’t seen it yet came to suspect that the whole thing was a hoax.

The father pays the restaurant bill (from a green wallet that had belonged to Pushkin, via a relative who’d been an Ambassador to Russia) and they rush to see the Musical Brain. They don’t hear any music, perhaps because the theatre is full and a “comedy of manners” (as opposed to “real theatre”) is generating laughter and commotion.

There’s some exposition about Mom’s obsession with “real theatre,” then a truck ride, boy in the back with his dog Geniol. A detour to the circus, which is jammed full. Probably because people feel safe there. Safe from what? Oh, the dwarfs. See, three dwarfs play with the circus, a married couple, and the husband’s brother, but it turns out the wife and brother-in-law were carrying on and the husband found out so the illicit couple ran off and the husband got a gun and ran off after them, and with him being of intemperate character, there is concern that a stray bullet could harm any innocent bystander. But a thorough search of the town had revealed no dwarfs. They started looking in smaller and smaller places, cocoons, the undersides of leaves. To no avail, so there is this threat hanging over the town…

And we go back to the theatre, as the narrator now realizes he’s mixed up the order of the tale, and the drive past the circus must’ve taken place before the viewing of the Brain. I read somewhere that this is one of Aira’s trademarks: he doesn’t edit, he merely writes wrong turns into the story. This annoys me: why read anything when it might be negated in the next paragraph?

Does the plot really matter? We return our attention to the Brain, and the theatre, and the dwarfs make an appearance, and Sarita as well christening an egg with a book.

It’s the sort of story you have to read, I guess. I love craziness, but this made little sense to me. I waited to read it until I was in the mood for some fun, after a small adventure of my own last weekend, but it wasn’t fun to me. The elements didn’t seem to belong together, or to lead one to another. They seemed too random. But maybe I’m missing the point – they were random, held together by the fantastical imagination of one small boy.

The images were hilarious, and I kept wondering if I’d enjoy it as a video. But I don’t think so. I’m skeptical of literature in translation anyway. I think language, in good literature, is too deeply rooted to be translated, especially something like this, deeply rooted in Cesar Aira’s boyhood and the religious and supernatural culture of the region. I’m glad I experienced it, but I’m not that interested in seeing more.

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