I guess my blog is, if anything, a bit of a celebration of well-written middlebrow, mostly English, mostly oldish, and mostly about tea cups and cats. Fair? Well, I also love to try things that are a bit different sometimes (especially – scholar that I am – if they are short, so the experiment needn’t be all-encompassing). So, when I went off to a literary conference in the summer, I thought I’d take The Literary Conference (2006) by the Argentinian author César Aira, translated by Katherine Silver (one of three Aira novels sent to me by Hamish Hamilton a while ago, in a boxset of three with the cover designs below).
Somehow I got distracted, and only finished it recently – which, considering it’s only 90 pages long, isn’t very impressive, but it isn’t because I didn’t like it. I was delightfully baffled and bemused by the whole thing. It’s surrealism mixed with postmodernism, with a dollop of science-fiction for good measure.
Our hero – and seldom has the term been used with less justice – has the same name as the author, and is off to attend a literary conference. We see extremely little of this. Instead we see his arrogance, his venom against rivals, and his determination to succeed. All are seen in the curious opening, where he discovers the secret of the ‘Macuto Line’ – a rope that has pirates’ treasure on the end of it, under the sea, only nobody has worked out how to solve it. Guess who does?
But that is an overture to the main event. The protagonist wants to clone his rival, and has – since he is, he is willing to confess, a genius – devised a cloning machine, and secures a cell from Carlos Fuentes by means of a trained wasp.
Upon my return to the hotel, the excitement of the past few hours reached its anticlimax. The first part of the operation, the most demanding part for me, was over: I had obtained a cell from Carlos Fuentes, I had placed it inside the cloning machine, and I had left the machine to operate under optimum conditions. If you add to this the fact that the previous day I had solved the secular enigma of the Macuto Line, I could feel momentarily satisfied and think about other things. I had a few days to do just that. Cloning a living being is not like blowing glass. It happens on its own, but it takes time. Even though the process is prodigiously accelerated, it requires almost a week, according to the human calendar, for it must reconstruct on a small scale the entire geology of the evolution of life.
The climax of the novella is undoubtedly the way in which this clone goes awry. I want to say what happens so much – it is so strange, and yet extremely fitting (and goes back neatly to the beginning) – but I won’t do Aira the disservice of spoiling the ending, in case you choose to read it.
I have no real idea what I thought about The Literary Conference. It did remind me of the two novels I’ve read by Adolfo Bioy Casares – in that it pretty much confused me, without alienating me. Perhaps it was more of a tourist venture into the tastes of others, but… it was fun, nonetheless.