Thursday, April 7, 2011

Aira’s Literary Conference

A whirl of work, itinerant cold symptoms, and travel preparations slashed into my reading time over the last couple weeks… but I did manage to read and finish a novella, César Aira’s The Literary Conference, Katherine Silver’s translation of El congreso de literature. The Literary Conference is short and full of offbeat surprises -- plus I’m getting ready to go to a literary conference of sorts myself, the London Book Fair -- so I’ll keep this post brief, too.

The Literary Conference is a wonderfully metaphysical short novel told by a man, (not) coincidently named César, who is a translator and a scientist with a unique cloning method. He goes to a literary conference, which the reader barely sees, with the goal of cloning a Mexican writer. Of course the project goes haywire in a very dramatic and odd way.

The book’s plot is fun and unpredictable, blending genres, but I enjoyed César’s thought process, which often appears random, even more. The Literary Conference begins with César’s story of how he found pirate treasure. He says it wasn’t genius that enabled him to solve the long-time mystery of the treasure:

What happened (I shall try to explain it) is that every mind is shaped by its own experiences and memories and knowledge, and what makes it unique is the grand total and extremely personal nature of the collection of all the data that have made it what it is.

César goes on to relate this thought to the books we read, which made me happy because this is something I think about all too often. Indeed, who reads the same sets of books? And how do those odd combinations affect our thinking? Then there’s this, which César mentions while his clone incubates. This sums up my state of mind as I prepare to travel and finish up this post at Logan Airport:

For someone who travels as little as I do, for someone who leads a very routine life, a trip can make an enormous difference; it is the objective equivalent of cerebral hyperactivity.

I think the attraction of The Literary Conference comes more from the charm of César’s quirky voice, thoughts, and combination of experiences than a single brilliant idea or conclusion. Even if César’s mind sometimes feels a hair too hyperactive, this short book contains lots of enjoyable scenes and observations. The Literary Conference is on the shortlist for the Best Translated Book Awards; I don’t read Spanish but thought Silver’s translation read very nicely, capturing and creating a voice.

I’ll leave analysis of the book’s “translations” and narrative shifts to M.A.Orthofer of The Complete Review. I think he does a nice job summing up the book without revealing too much.

Up Next: I have no idea! Probably something I find in my travels…

Disclaimer. I received a review copy of The Literary Conference from New Directions, a publisher with whom I have discussed translations. Read the first pages of the book here.

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