Eterna Juventud. César Aira. Santiago de Chile: Hueders. 2017. 77 pages.
“What more could one ask of a good Indian?” César Aira has been so prolific, so exuberant in his production (nearly 100 books), that it is not strange that this question resounds like a reflection, in a personal way, without a doubt complicit with his readers, that uncovers a key to reading this new novel. The person who asks this question is Eterna Juventud [Eternal Youth], a Mapuche Indian, whose love for collecting certain archeological objects, which he calls little talking heads, and his reflections on indigenous life trace the common thread of this novel.
It is a tenuous thread, if you wish, given that nothing really happens in Eterna Juventud. As a reader of Aira, as I read the novel, I could not stop thinking of his fictions about the pampas in the 18th and 19th centuries, in Ema, la cautiva [Ema the Captive], in La liebre [The Hare], in Un episodio en la vida del pintor viajero [An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter], I could not stop hoping that a series of unexpected events would propose another reinvention of this early period of Argentina. But, as I have already said, in Eterna Juventud, nothing really happens. In this consists its pleasure, on this concentrates its gaze. Eterna Juventud, with its patient reflections on what life is and what are the intervals that interrupt life, with its poetic language, with its motionless mountain setting, is almost like a repetitive photomontage in which meaning seems to operate, as in much of lyrical poetry, more by the accumulation and superposition than through the plot.
If the lyrical tone and the minimal plot propose a narrative in some way distinct from the Aira we know, inventiveness, fantasy, at times, surrealistic, and the playful proposal of being hidden in a supposed secret in the story or, as he himself expressed in an interview, that the story is a roman à clef [novel with a key] in which characters or real events are disguised as fiction, turns out to be recognizably Airean. For the reader newly arrived to Aira’s pages, Eterna Juventud can be a delightful introduction to his particular aesthetic. For the reader of Aira, the story proposes, and this is probably the key to its roman à clef, a justification, an explanation, of his position within the world of the arts. In a literary world like that of today in which critical appreciation and important prizes seem conditional upon the necessity of placing the literary at the service of social commitment and in which commercial recognition seems conditional upon the necessity of putting the author at the service of the market, Aira aligns himself with the pursuit of the literature for literature’s sake, with the Kantian predilection for the autonomy of art that enamored the romantics, and invigorated the modernists, that which favors beauty, pleasure, innovation, play, and, perhaps, happiness, above the social and commercial functions.
The metaphorical vehicles that frame the key to the work seem to be the little talking heads that Eterna Juventud collects, “those small treasures, that were his life’s desire and the illusion.” Like Aira’s books, the talking heads have no usefulness, no commitment to any message, but are anthropological objects through which “hours shifted to other hours, places to other places, beauty to another beauty, and happiness to heaven.” Nor are they sought, but rather are “uncaused discoveries,” that do not respond to a plan and therefore resist, in some way to a useful cataloguing to explain them or give them a social or commercial meaning. In the novel, his uncle, the Cacique Cafulcurá, says to Eterna Juventud that “there is an argument that should touch you: the reasoned catalogue would transcend you and make your hobby part of your people’s history,” fully consistent with the announcement made by Aira that the publishers had allowed him to work in a “catalogue raisonné” of his work as a celebration of the publication of his first 100 novels. But this argument, in some way, goes against Aira’s conviction that “one cannot be a writer and be important at the same time. One has to choose one of the two things.” This stance leads me to recall the Borges of Borges and I who views the writer separate from the famous author, saying that the latter has the same qualities but in “a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor.” One cannot be a writer and important at the same time; the pressure to fix the work, to make a “catalogue raissonné,” disturbs Aira so much that, in the voice of his character, he expresses his frustration with the requirements beyond the mere literary that are demanded of his as an author: “it was not necessary to catalogue nor disseminate anything, because thanks to the individual search for pleasure, one improved and perfected all of his surroundings, and became a creator and a benefactor of humanity. What more could one ask of a good Indian?” To not catalogue, not commit himself, to maintain the independence as an author is, in some way, for Aira a way of committing himself to literature, this “irresponsible game, a game almost for children that preserves their infancy.” Eterna Juventud doesn’t fix his collection either, nor does he organize his work, “By bringing honor to his name, he would prefer to prolong his youth.” Aira’s latest installment is an entertaining, almost poetic reflection on the literary, on his stance as an author, and on the necessity of dedicating ourselves to that which preserves our essence, that guarantees our Eterna Juventud.
University of Oklahoma
Translated by Auston Stiefer