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An Argentinean Novel Spins Countless Stories From A Bicycle Wheel

New Directions

Chatting with a young artist, Leticia, in a café in Buenos Aires, a man observes a bicyclist completely drenched in water that drops from an overhead awning. The bicyclist suddenly recognizes Leticia, and she him. They had met only once before, but the power of their meeting was "so charged with entropic force that it remained indelibly etched."

They embrace, and then the bicyclist, Enrique, recognizes the man as well — the narrator, who, even while witnessing the reunion, had not recognized him until now, when in fact they had met many times, quite recently too, and exchanged long yarns, and the narrator is staying at Enrique's guest-house It is hard to tell how much time has elapsed — perhaps none at all — before Enrique recognizes somebody else in the outdoor café: his mother.

Coincidences are ceaseless in César Aira's The Divorce, a 2008 novel with a new English translation by Chris Andrews. The coincidences and the rambunctious absurdism are nothing new to Aira's readers, but rarely before has the author seemed so purposeful. "Let us take advantage of this frozen moment to sketch in the spatial and temporal background," our narrator says towards the end of the novel. The frozen moment is the moment the water falls on Enrique as he holds his bicycle, "from whose spinning stories are born."

The coincidences and the rambunctious absurdism are nothing new to Aira's readers, but rarely before has the author seemed so purposeful.

The spinning stories in question take the form of a series of tales, largely about the people absurdly, coincidentally connected by Enrique's drenching — there's the origin story of Enrique and Leticia's escape from a burning school, then a story about Enrique's evolution-themed hotel, then a story about Enrique's acquaintance Jusepe, a former apprentice to a sick, destitute sculptor and former neighbor to Krishna (the actual god as a person, "a kind of dwarf" living in the outskirts of Buenos Aires), and finally the story of Enrique's mother, who has lived many impossible lives. The frozen moment closes the novel, even though in chronological sequence it belongs at the beginning: Aira reminds us, of course, of his love for Borges ("the games that Borges had played with space-time in his work were secondary to his art of storytelling; his presence hovered over the neighborhood where I had come to stay").

The sensation of reading these story-digressions that are at times so digressive as to be unbearable is familiar for readers of Aira, but in The Divorce, he is almost singularly focused on space-time. It is a bit like bungee-jumping from Jupiter to the atomic level. And here, let me take advantage of this moment to note that in The Divorce, Aira has hit upon a burgeoning theme within academic history and literary criticism: narratives that traverse scale. "Multi-scalar" can mean different things to different people, but to me it is exactly as Aira describes it: moving from the macro to micro in both space and time.

For instance, as schoolchildren, Enrique and Leticia met while trapped in a neo-Gothic building — "a never-ending labyrinth" — as it went up in flames. As they rushed down hallways and staircases, confronted by fire at each step, they "landed on the floor of the old billiard room in the basement," where there was a "scale model of the College, in which [a] thousand boarders had sought refuge. This extremely ingenious evacuation plan was based on the safeguards provided by a sudden change of dimensions." Enrique and Leticia enter this scale model, and what follows are their almost-identical attempts to escape the building, this time at the atomic level:

This microcatastrophe within the microcatastrophe was an indication that contiguity had intensified to the point where its nature was beginning to change. The spaces, so tiny it was hard to see how anything could fit into them, seemed to want to show that they could in fact hold something, after all: space.

Of course, the themes of space and time do not pass by us indirectly. One of my favorite things about César Aira is just how blunt he is on the spatial and temporal background of that frozen moment. "Argentina had entered a phase of prosperity," Aira writes. "Money, the proverbial scarce good, had become plentiful, even to excess, which had surprised everyone and stunned not a few." The economy "suggested a transmutation of Time into Space." In such a regime, things take on a mythic, almost magical force: People behave as if time itself has stopped. Until, of course, time "came back in through the window" as Argentina's prosperity begins to wane. Writing in 2008, Aira is presciently pessimistic on the matter of Argentina's economy: "If Argentina lapsed back into poverty, it would be interesting to see if anyone noticed."

Why is Aira doing all this? For an absurdist, whose novels I imagine can only be read in one sitting and for whom thematic consistency is rare, The Divorce is something of a departure. When Enrique is first drenched, "he seemed to go on getting wetter, in a process that transcended the temporality of the accident," a mimetic construction on the shape of Aira's narrative. But when we return to the frozen moment, the sentence transmutes into a statement about the Argentinian economy and life within the country — a country that has shifted from one debt crisis to another since the turn of the millennium, recently poised to yet again default on its international debt. The Divorce's stories, thus, serve as extended metaphors on the temporality of life in such a country. In a remarkable feint, Aira wraps his series of seemingly-digressive stories around Argentina writ large.

Not that there are any lessons in it. "The whole of western culture has been built on the magical powers of the book," Aira writes abruptly, as if to say there are no grand solution to be drawn from his humble, trifling stories. But even if they're trifles, they're marvelous: magical spokes of the bicycle wheel that continues to spin stories.

Kamil Ahsan is a biologist, historian and writer based in New Haven. He is an editor at Barrelhouse and his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The American Prospect, Salon and Chicago Review.

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Kamil Ahsan