[New Directions; 2023]

Tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews

In Fulgentius, Argentine fabulist César Aira’s most recent novel in English translation, the narrator alternately describes the eponymous protagonist’s mount as black—“from the height of his black horse”—and white—“a white horse with a gait as smooth as silk.” Fulgentius himself is a sixty-seven-year-old Imperial Roman general, in command of the invincible Lupine Legion tasked with pacifying the province of Pannonia. He’s also an amateur dramatist, the author of a single tragedy composed in his youth, and treats the Pannonian campaign as an excuse to stage what may be its last performances. On the return march near the end of the novel, he befriends Maximus, a prisoner he’s meant to make disappear “as if by magic” along the way. Maximus, no stranger to swindles, notices what may have been troubling the reader: “‘I’ve heard people mention your big black horse and your big white horse, and I’m confused by the contradiction. Is it black or white? Or are there two horses?’” Instead of treating the discrepancy as a continuity error to be edited away, Aira, in typical fashion, turns it into the pretext for a digression on the nature of language and reality. Fulgentius, convinced of Maximus’s exceptional intelligence by the man’s differentiation between word and image, daydreams of retiring from military life and devoting his remaining years to the pursuit of knowledge. This sleight-of-hand distracts us from the fact that neither Fulgentius (nor Aira) bothers to answer Maximus’s question.

As a reader it’s impossible to know if such errors are “real,” or fabricated to supply verisimilitude to the metanarrative that is Aira’s eccentric method of composition, which results in the publication of multiple novella-length books a year. As with the microcosm, so the macrocosm: Any concept of the mistake in Aira’s fiction loses all meaning. Much has already been written about his fuga hacia adelante or “flight forward” technique, but to ignore it while evaluating any of his books would be absurd. In brief, Aira claims to write two to three pages every day, allowing happy accidents and minutiae to enter his work, but never revises. If he writes himself into an impasse, he has to write himself back out by resorting to all manner of narrational acrobatics, like the sleight-of-hand above, shifts in genre, and so on. It all gets reabsorbed into the continuum of breakneck progression, every word straddling the line between intentional and contingent. In clumsier hands, the outcome would be incoherence, but in Aira’s, it’s rarely less than exhilarating. His books may be thought of as jazz improvisations recorded live, at the frenetic tempos of bebop and with the form-shattering exuberance of free jazz. Each is a performance that will never be repeated, only reread.

Since they’re all iterations of the same experiment in writing, reshuffling many of the same themes and motifs, obsessively, reading any of Aira’s books in isolation is a tricky proposition. That being said, certain aspects of Fulgentius set it apart from much of Aira’s oeuvre currently available in English translation. Its setting is not the contemporary Buenos Aires (Ghosts, Shantytown, etc.) or even historical Argentina (The Hare, Ema the Captive, Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, The Linden Tree, etc.) that his readers will have grown accustomed to, but the periphery of what ancient Romans considered the known world, where myth and history interpenetrate. It’s also longer than his typical one hundred pages. It gives the impression—however spurious—of being more intentionally structured and labored over. As opposed to a series of freewheeling episodes which abruptly converge in a contrived dénouement, Fulgentius’s journey forms a relatively smooth narrative arc, and the coincidences with which Aira tends to splice together plotlines are not as jarring as they can be. And yet, as with a number of Aira’s works (How I Became a Nun, The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, Birthday, etc), we find an autofictional element at play. Fulgentius both is and is not a cipher for Aira himself—an aging man with his head in the clouds who, if we take his books as forays into the unknown, has waged countless “campaigns” with language for his trusty Lupine Legion: “Both in reality and in the general’s dreams . . . those six thousand men with their glorious history and bulky equipment . . . seemed like a dark bubble full of mystery, obeying his orders as blindly as the stars obey the cosmos.”

Aira, sly as ever, refracts the tenuous identity between author and protagonist through Fulgentius’s play. After witnessing a performance, Marius, the motormouth Proconsul of Sirmium, asks Fulgentius why the hero shares his name, when none of the incidents recounted—not least the climactic death demanded by tragic form—could plausibly have happened to the author. Fulgentius replies, half disingenuously, that his is a coded play: “‘Every real act, every person, is represented faithfully but in a different form. Imagine I want to tell you the story of how I picked up a dry leaf from the ground . . . but I don’t want people to know what I did, so I write that I looked up into the night sky and saw a star.’” Marius, serving momentarily as a proxy for the reader, wonders if this “procedure” isn’t too “mechanical.” The accusation fazes Fulgentius not a jot. After all, for Aira, it’s precisely a mechanistic procedure that provokes the imagination. Fulgentius’s tragedy serves as an analog to Aira’s unitary oeuvre insofar as each book is an iteration of the same experiment that turns out differently with every performance or—to borrow Fulgentius’s theatrical term—rehearsal. And in a sense, this word draws out the intentionally “unfinished” appearance of Aira’s works. For his part, Fulgentius seems to prefer these proto-performances, these performances minus an audience: “After a surfeit of rehearsals, they rattled off their speeches in an automatic, absentminded way . . . Fulgentius let them carry on; he liked that mechanical, inhuman delivery . . . Listening to the lines that he too knew by heart, he drifted off into a daydream. The rehearsal was happening inside his mind.”

Earlier on, Aira tells how Fulgentius composed the play as a schoolboy. Without any life experience, he had only his imagination to draw from. His aim was to “show how silly the genre was, applying the rules with ludicrous rigidity . . . He let the meter guide him; it gathered all sorts of unexpected words. Once he realized that the meaning was developing on its own, he gave it little thought.” Fulgentius does not hold water as a proper roman à clef, for in the performance that writing is, language adheres to its own rules, like those of hexameter or tragedy in the protagonist’s play, exercising an autonomy (or automatism) that transfigures the author-insert into a semi-independent operator. In this way, Aira flushes into the open a dialectic of freedom and discipline that is the romance of form: discipline as freedom, method as form.

Skewing toward the pole of freedom, we may suppose that the true protagonist of Aira’s novels is the play of thought that disrupts, even as it advances, the “iron law” of narrative progression. Fulgentius, like Aira, revels in the poetry of speculation. “What a true blessing,” the Legate reflects, “that thought and the words that conveyed it went everywhere with the thinker, weighed nothing, and were always available.” Aira’s prose, in part because it reabsorbs and redeems the so-called mistake, is matchless for the sensation of weightlessness it conveys, whether in describing a landscape (“they came to the crater of a volcano and circled its rim, gazing down at the crimson boiling lava; any one of its bubbles would have been large enough to swallow the Coliseum”), or juggling such concepts as the conflict between reason and unreason. He makes thinking look effortless, giddy, all but utopian, and his novels are nothing if not vehicles for thought—thought performed as an elasticity between reason and unreason, reality and imagination:

The idea of cheerfully throwing logic overboard and behaving like a lunatic was not without charm; it would be like leaving your luggage behind and setting off to explore the world, light as air, astride the iridescent pony of stupidity. But . . . he had not been born to throw anything overboard. Still, he could add the irrational to reason, like a sculptor who finds, on finishing his Venus, that there is some marble left over and so as not to waste it endows the goddess with a third foot, growing out of her neck.

In Fulgentius, much of this performed thought swirls around the theme of aging. That Fulgentius wrote his one and only play when he was a schoolboy feeds into this preoccupation—hard not to read as Aira’s—returning us to the superimposition of protagonist and author, but also, perhaps, providing a key to the novel’s setting. Aira has little concern for historical fiction as a realistic or nostalgic recreation of the factual. His interest lies, rather, in the tension between his protagonist’s old age, and classical antiquity as the “adolescence” of western civilization, a stricture which frees Aira to think as or through Fulgentius with the props of classical genres and metaphors.

Selecting Ancient Rome for the setting of Fulgentius may also be an instance of the “procedure” that replaces leaves with stars, through which Aira comments on the predicaments of his own times. Romans prided themselves on a bricolage culture, infamous for appropriating wholesale the art, architecture, and mythology of lands they conquered—along with their wealth, of course. A similar impetus often drives historical fiction’s nostalgic appropriation of the past, which it then injects with present-day ideologies in order to avoid facing the uncomfortable realities of either time, thereby erasing real historical progress. Aira turns the genre inside out to write a story that is, among other things, about the impasse of his own method which, after so many years, begins to reproduce its own effects, falling back on the same reflexive tricks. In a larger sense, it is also about postmodernism and how reflexivity has become a mere reflex. As a manifestation of postmodernism, Aira’s writing on writing threatens to cast him in the role of a “writer’s writer,” turning fiction into an ever more insular, navel-gazing form—entertainment for the intellectual cynic. But metafiction can be a perverse form of realism that interrogates its style of representation. How, Fulgentius asks, can we see past an attitude that takes itself as, if not the end of history, the end of historical progress?

In spite of everything, Aira returns once more, alongside his protagonist, to the margins of the known, exposing his performance to the irruption of the as-yet-unknown. At one point in the story, the Lupine Legion is engaged in a pitched battle with the Pannonian guerrillas when a wild boar suddenly appears on the scene: “The creature’s irrational confusion at finding itself at the center of something as rational as war expressed itself as blind fury, a state for which the species was admirably equipped. The battle came to a halt as the warriors on both sides, laughing and shouting, dodged the charging beast.” Watching from his vantage point atop his horse (white, in this instance), Fulgentius remarks to his lieutenant that in the epic genre epitomized by Homer, a wild boar’s appearance would represent an epiphany, the “incarnation of a god.” Regardless, it’s an unexpected phenomenon that throws off the “rational” order of things—the sort of radical narrative pivot Aira’s method makes possible. Even in an age of exhausted postmodernity, in which there’s supposedly nothing new under the sun, the imagination may give rise to something unforeseen, unprecedented: We’ll know it by our laughter. In exercising his, and his readers’ imaginations, Aira holds out this possibility, which could not exist without the crisis of impasse. The wild boar of imagination or—why not?—the “iridescent pony of stupidity” may yet rupture the complacency of a culture turning lackadaisical circles around the lavish set-pieces of history.

William Repass lives Pittsburgh, PA where he works in a used book shop and an arthouse cinema. His poetry and fiction have appeared in, or are forthcoming from, Word For/Word, Hotel Amerika, Bennington Review, Denver Quarterly, Fiction International, and elsewhere. His critical writing on film may be found at Slant Magazine.

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