Monday, December 04, 2006

Cesar Aira / Eloy Urroz

A review of César Aira's An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter and Eloy Urroz's The Obstacles

After the Rabelaisian movement known as El Boom in Latin American letters there came along a period of exhaustion. And revolt, too. There was, for instance, a group of authors that included the Chilean Alberto Fuguet and the Bolivian Edmundo Paz Soldán who ascribed to the generation of McOndo. Their objective was to turn Magic Realism on its head. But their novels were flat and repetitive and, in most cases, D.O.A.

Then there were the five Mexicans responsible for the "Crack Manifesto." Their aesthetic was far more ambitious: to shape a novel in Spanish unburdened by language and geography. The results were interesting, among them Jorge Volpi's "In Search of Klingsor," about the Nazis and the making of the atomic bomb. Interesting, of course, is a demeaned word: It used to mean appealing but nowadays is a synonym of all right, maybe even tolerable.

Interesting is the last adjective I would use to describe the late Roberto Bolaño, by far the most inspiring talent from south of the border since the '70s. A Chilean who lived for years in Mexico and ultimately settled near Barcelona before he died in 2003 at age 50, Bolaño's oeuvre is slowly making its way into English, in renditions by Chris Andrews, released under the aegis of New Directions. (His collection of stories, "Last Evenings on Earth," has just appeared.) His hypnotizing style and restless approach to plot are at once refreshing and humbling.

More imaginative, although also less consistent, is the astonishingly prolific Argentine César Aira, whom Bolaño once described as the type of "eccentric" whose prose, "once you start reading [it], you don't want to stop." Bolaño's portrait isn't quite accurate: Born in 1949, Aira has published almost 60 books, from criticism on Edward Lear and Alejandra Pizarnik to editions of the poetry of Osvaldo Lamborghini to a vast number of novels. In the novels I've read, like the untranslated "El congreso de literatura," about a writer's conference where one of the participants decides to clone Carlos Fuentes, the premise is better than its execution. Aira's dreams are emblematic but never unconventional. When he's in top form -- and it's seldom the case -- he can be utterly astonishing, as in "An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter," published in Spanish in 2000 and now translated into English by Andrews, too.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is "The Obstacles," a laborious novel by Eloy Urroz, one of the members who agglutinated around the Crack Manifesto. Published originally as "Las Rémoras" in 1996 and translated into English by the superb Ezra Fitz, it is a trite, self-obsessed novel-within-a-novel typical of the French Nouveau Roman.

Urroz was born in 1967. He came of age in Mexico City and spent summers in La Paz, Baja California. Infatuated by and aspiring to Xerox, at least structurally, Mario Vargas Llosa's "The Green House" -- which, oddly, is, in his view, "the best Latin American novel of the 20th century" -- Urroz has a series of narrators, all of them male, interrupting the narrative, three of them on a quest for unrequited love. Women are sheer objects of desire. The perspective shifts back and forth from Mexico's capital to the town of Las Rémoras. Unfortunately, he belongs to the school of fiction that believes in the reader's journey as a form of punishment. Suffer and ye shall be redeemed from the wretchedness of pop lit!
Read the full review

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