The Divorce by César Aira review – ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Velocity and perplexity characterise the work of the Argentinian author César Aira, who was born in 1949 and has tended to publish at least a couple of books each year for nearly four decades now. In novellas such as The Literary Conference, involving an attempt to clone the author Carlos Fuentes, or How I Became a Nun, in which a child’s tall stories mingle with a reality that proves stranger still, teasing meta-literary antics unfold with page-turning allure.

Aira has become more widely known in English over the past decade, thanks in part to the impact of Roberto Bolaño in translation, which fed demand for other Latin American writers admired by Bolaño. His praise – “Once you’ve started reading Aira, you don’t want to stop” – follows Aira around, appearing once again on his latest book to be translated into English, The Divorce (it was published in Spanish in 2010).

Its narrator, Kent, is a newly divorced literary academic who leaves the US to spend Christmas in Buenos Aires. He’s at a pavement cafe with Leticia, a “talented video artist”, when the cafe’s owner, pulling up his awning after heavy rainfall, douses an unsuspecting cyclist, Enrique, with the runoff, just at the moment when he arrived at the cafe seeking Leticia, whom he hasn’t seen “since the day they met, which was also the day that had marked the end of their childhood”.

In the end I felt strangely ungrateful – after all, what more could you want?

So begins a shaggy dog story that juggles short scenes centred on Kent with longer segments recounting increasingly wild episodes from Enrique’s past. In the first episode, he and Leticia are teenagers who escape a fire at a school by fleeing into a miniature scale model of the school, also ablaze. Later, Enrique’s mother survives a gun attack, before we see how, aged 14, she took charge of 4,000 employees at the processing plant of a pharmaceutical company (“the largest in South America”), a feat that leads her former employees to hunt, decades later, for a fabled manual she apparently used for her decision-making.

Patti Smith’s companionable introduction tells us how she once ran into Aira at a literary festival and gushed about his novella An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, only to realise later, on reading more of his work, that “the qualities I had so admired... were commonplace to his process: just something he does”. It’s meant as a tribute to Aira’s “vastly flexible, kaleidoscopic mind”, but you could read his narrative habits another way, too, as a compulsive piling-up of event upon event. The titular divorce ends up seeming less to do with Kent’s marriage – a throwaway bit of narrative kindling about which we’re ultimately told next to nothing – than the oddly pressure-less relationship between word and meaning that is a side effect of Aira’s storytelling largesse.

In the end I felt strangely ungrateful – after all, what more could you want? And yet it’s curious: fiction is nothing but a conjuring trick, sure, but we need to feel there’s something riding on it all the same.

The Divorce by César Aira, translated by Chris Andrews, is published by And Other Stories (£8.99). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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