Scott Esposito: Review of The Seamstress and the Wind by Cesar Aira

New Directions
June 30, 2011
144pp; $12.95

Generalizations all but beg contradiction, but with an author as original as Cesar Aira, I feel safe making at least one: the plots of his books have a much greater sense of contingency than almost any other contemporary writer I can think of. After all, this is the author who began one plot with clones of Carlos Fuentes, got diverted through a play about Adam and Eve, and finally ended with mammoth blue worms. Such a storyline, not atypical at all for Aira, makes one feel that his books can go anywhere at any time.

Aira’s newest book in English, which is the fifth of an entire fleet of Aira that New Directions plans to release in the upcoming years, has the highest feeling of contingency yet. This starts right on the first page, as Aira blatantly states that he takes it as his right to be as whimsical as he wants: “These last weeks, since before coming to Paris, I’ve been looking for a plot for the novel I want to write: a novel of successive adventures, full of anomalies and inventions. Until now nothing occurred to me, except the title, which I’ve had for years and which I cling to with blank obstinacy: ‘The Seamstress and the Wind.’” [1] As promised, the book that eventually springs forth from this title is full of anomalies and adventures—right to the straining point.

This collection of incidents does form into a plot, although it’s an absurd one. It starts out like this: one day in rural Argentina, the child of Delia and Ramón Siffoni goes missing. He has been accidentally carried off in the huge shipping truck of a man named Chiquito, bound for the wilds of Patagonia. Delia heads off in hot pursuit, being driven by the town’s taxi driver, Zaralegui. Along the way Zaralegui collides with Chiquito’s truck, unbeknownst to the latter, who continues driving with the corpse of Zaralegui and his Chrysler attached. Delia is thrown into the air, recovers, and continues wandering in hopes of catching up to the truck. In the meantime, Ramón returns home from work, discovers his wife missing, and heads off in pursuit. A mysterious blue car follows him.

This at least makes some traditional novelistic sense. What follows does not, and includes: a conveyance named “the Paleomobile,” which is constructed in situ from an archaic armadillo shell; an apocalyptic child monster that is born when a man has sex with a pregnant woman, the fetus grabbing his member and being pulled out; Delia making friends with “the wind” (which, magic genie–like fulfills her wishes by blowing toward her whatever she wants); and numerous authorial interventions by Aira in which he muses as though he actually knew these people while growing up in his hometown of Coronel Pringles.

Some pointed remarks on the “Patagonian clouds,” which “welcome and accommodate all transformations within a single instant” [48] leads one to believe that what Aira has attempted here is a fundamentally unstable text, a book that, like clouds, retains its constituent parts but continually lets them be buffeted around by even the smallest of influences.

Aira has, of course, developed a reputation as an utterly capricious author beholden to nothing so much as his temperament, but The Seamstress and the Wind takes the cake. Rarely have I seen an author so brazenly assert his right to take the story in whatever direction he wishes at any moment. Nonetheless, Aira must have felt at least a little responsibility to the reader (or novelistic form—take your pick), as he makes a last ditch stab at tying everything together, and, I think, succeeds. Explaining precisely how this happens would rob any reader of the enjoyment of seeing Aira tap dance, but suffice to say it’s a grand—momentous even—conclusion, with the major plot threads literally intersecting. And then, a final drop of whimsy concludes this weird story as it drifts off into the moonlight.

This is the lightest of Aira’s books I’ve read—“lightest” as in feeling that everything exists strictly on the surface of the text—but throughout runs a coherent enough backbone of implication to possess a reader’s imagination. Aira seems to be attempting to dramatize an author’s relationship to the text, to make his unseen presence deform the story like a body beneath a blanket. Late in the book he addresses this rather directly:

The unspoken, like love, is a thing that occupies a place in a story. Leaving aside the distances involved, it’s like God. God can be placed in two different locations within a discourse: at the end, as Leibniz does when he says “and it is this that we call God”—which is to say, when one arrives at Him after the deduction of the world; or at the beginning: “God created . . .” They are not different theologies, they are the same, only exposed from the other side. The kind of discourse that places God at the beginning is the model and mother of what we call “fiction.” [78]

In the same way that Aira knows his fiction comes from somewhere not-quite-knowable—in the beginning of the book, he elegantly theorizes that it comes from, to paraphrase, imagination leaning on memory—everyone in The Seamstress and the Wind seems to suspect that they’re an aspect of a Cesar Aira novel. It’s just that no one can quite put their finger on the fact.

Dramatizing this search for a fiction’s ontological roots strikes me as a laudable, original goal, and Aira’s attempt at doing so is one hell of a fun, funny ride. There are more than enough madcap incident and armchair philosophizing to keep any reader busy for quite a while. On the whole, I prefer my Aira a smidgen less chaotic than this, but fecundity of invention is hardly a liability in a novelist. Seamstress is likely the least conventional of Aira’s books yet to hit our shores, another witty, flood of a fiction from the ever-creative Aira. It is more proof that, no matter how prodigious he becomes, Aira seems unable to step into the same narrative river twice.


Nice review--but no mention of the translator even in the header. It's Rosalie Knecht, fyi.


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