Josh Honn reviews César Aira's The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira
Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions, 2012)
In the margins of my copy of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, I have taken my mechanical pencil, the same one I've held while reading so many other novels, and I have written words, but mostly I have drawn lines. These unsteady lines—I often read on the train—shapes, and simple mathematical symbols run parallel to the justified text as well as over, under, and around assorted words and phrases; they are impressions, markers for memory, abstractions, and, ultimately, a deformation of Aira's work by which I claim it as my own. I would like to talk about these lines.
Aira—the author and the character are often the same—works on a straight line, his books written one after the other, without revision, without ever looking back. And these books accumulate so that they become nearly impossible to count: one critic says more than 60, another over 70; some, seeming bold, offer an exact figure, while still others, overwhelmed, venture into triple digits. We've even begun to lose sight of the small amount that have been translated into English. Whatever the number, Aira's oeuvre comes from a seemingly simple and precise process, one Aira himself has been open about, calling it la huida hacia adelante, or the flight forward. It involves little, if any, rereading of a work-in-progress, let alone revisions.
But this always moving forward is not simple momentum, it's an attempt to make the line come back upon itself; and through this completion, Aira hopes to understand Aira, and his fiction to help him and his readers understand literature. Indeed, these short books are philosophical forays toward a comprehension of why the author writes, why the reader reads, and what makes literature survive and remain necessary. Of his books that have been translated into English, all depict this desperate search for meaning in/of/from literature. In How I Became a Nun he speaks of "the development of a writer's mind" and in Varamo wonders, "can literature be composed by chance?"; The Seamstress and the Wind addresses "the nowhere of the writer" and The Literary Conference "the accommodating guise of literature". All of these add up to a writer's obsessive search for self-meaning. Yet far from being self-obsessed, Aira's work never strays into the purely esoteric, and because his reading habits are as an intense as his writing process, his novels empathetically embrace his readers, no doubt literature-sick themselves, and their own search for meaning.
Of Aira's metafictions that have been translated into English, The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira is the most transparent. The act of writing is thinly obscured by the metaphor of medicine, the work of the author by that of the doctor. Dr. Aira, the novel's eponymous protagonist, is writing and publishing installments of his miracle cures, though he's having trouble describing the formula. Meanwhile, Dr. Actyn, a world-powerful and power-hungry doctor, is constantly hounding Aira, devising elaborate schemes, to expose the miracle cure and appropriate it in his quest for total control.
The novel begins with the somnambulistic Aira walking on a straight path from his house with no destination in particular; memory, ideas, and realities stop him along the way despite his drive to continue on. At one of these stops, Dr. Aira begins a monologue addressed to "a beautiful Lebanese cedar":
I honestly don't believe that humanity can continue much longer on this path. Our species has reached a point of such dominance on the planet that it no longer has to confront any serious threat, and it seems that all we can do is continue to live, enjoying what we can without having to risk anything. And we keep moving forward in that direction, securing what is already safe.
For Aira, the thoughts attendant upon this encounter with the cedar represent an alarm, an acknowledgement of the inherent dangers of proceeding ever forward, that the constant flight ahead may be an introspective comfort that can neither conform to, nor coexist with, social reality. Indeed, as soon as Dr. Aira begins walking again he is assaulted by the sound of an ambulance—driven by the evil Dr. Actyn's cronies—that slowly surrounds him, coming closer and closer, homing in on its target until Aira is left with no choice but confrontation.
Confrontation is one thing readers of literature in translation should be familiar with. When we read a translated text we read the original author, but we also read an original text deformed by the translator (in this case, the always brilliant Katherine Silver), and our reading itself is yet another deformation. What's more, translated works confront us with our limited capacity to absorb and assign meaning divorced from our current context. The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira was first published in Spanish in 1998, toward the end of a decade that gave rise to the now commonplace phenomena of the 24-hours new cycle and reality television. Heading into the new millenium, the context for Aira was one of anxiety, of assuming that one could at any moment be caught on camera, exposed, ridiculed, used up, and finished off. If anything these tendencies have become more intense; what is different is our acceptance and embrace of the mass media moment. We nearly all participate in the advancement of the digital age of anxiety: we are each our own 24-hour news network, our own reality television show. Dr. Actyn, like all good media moguls, understands that whoever owns the means of narrative production, controls the world. His army of actors and cameramen are out to expose Dr. Aira, to catch him in the act of making miracles, yet these attempts, motivated by the promise of material gain, are futile, as even Aira himself is prevented from knowing the formula to his own miracle cures.
What Actyn represents is a new hyperreality where everything is connected and everyone is aware of these interconnections, of the constant strain upon their infinite relationships, and the ease of which we can add to them. In this new world, we may still not know that we exist, but the means for convincing ourselves that we do are unprecedented and overwhelming. Like the sound of the ambulance intricately bearing down on the solitary Aira in search of meaning, Dr. Actyn seeks to transform reality by surrounding us with machines that carry on producing more and more increasingly edited layers of reality and encoded meaning, refining our awareness of ourselves so that we become incapable of accepting our existence except through these filters. In contrast, what Dr. Aira already knows is that while the overwhelming totality of existence may be something we cannot escape, we have means of navigating it, of even understanding it, but to do that one needs to abandon addition and embrace subtraction.
The accumulationist worldview of Dr. Actyn assumes that creation, particularly of new knowledge, derives only from addition: of facts, technology, narrative, choice, jobs, channels, links, and so on. Dr. Aira, on the other hand, by way of the straight line, discovers the power of negation, the ability to create by removing elements of reality. Confronted with the possibility that miracles do not exist, Aira reveals:
Under these conditions, a miracle was simply impossible. But it could be created indirectly, through negation, by excluding from the world everything that was incongruent with it occurring.
Thus, the miracle-cure is not a potion sold by the snake-oil salesman of the past, nor is it a present-day pharmaceutical invention requiring a prescription; it is a heuristic that consists of removing pieces of the world until it is made manageable and comprehensible, then reforming it into something resembling a possible reality in which to explore the truth of our own. What readers of Aira will have seen coming, and what Dr. Aira comes to understand, is that this heuristic has an antecedent: the Novel itself.
Having snuffed out Dr. Actyn's latest scheme, Aira eventually escapes the ambulance. Left alone, Dr. Aira's mind wanders and philosophizes, the ideas accumulating but the execution lacking, until he is confronted once more by Dr. Actyn. In one of Aira's most magical and magisterial scenes, Dr. Aira, disregarding Actyn's nefarious intentions, spontaneously performs his miracle-cure, using the powers of negation to forge a new reality for a dying man by creating one that does not contain his death. Through this process, which Aira describes as "an extreme case of 'doing something with words'", Aira realizes that not only has a miracle been performed that directly affects a solitary man, but, his miracle has created an entirely new universe. This deformation is the same one the author applies, the result being the Novel: a reasonable portion of our reality curated so that we—both authors and readers—may find meaning, not just about the part, but the whole.
Of all the lines I drew in the margins of my copy of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, the one that recurs most often is the one that comes back upon itself: the circle. Indeed, without the logic of the circle, without Aira having to confront Actyn, the miracle cures are an impossibility. It is within this contested space, this struggle—where the line finds and completes itself—that meaning is formed and truth is exposed. In Dr. Actyn's age of anxiety, in which the death of literature is so often proclaimed, it is assumed that one medium supplants the other in order to offer us something new. As it turns out, it is one of our oldest technologies—the book—that continues to enable answers to our ever infinite questions.