Cesar Aira: “The Musical Brain”

12/20/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, December 5, 2011. (Translated from the Spanish, by Chris Andrews.)

My confusion may be due, in part, to this story’s particular strangeness: although there is a compelling logic to the order in which the various episodes follow one another, they also exist independently, like the stars in the sky which were the only witnesses to the denouement, so the figures they compose may seem to owe more to fantasy than reality.

I don’t mind so much when an author decides to write a story of the above nature, even if I think it’s merely fabulist stuff — i.e., dishonest, failed magical realism. But I fault Aira for not getting straight to this: do we really need two columns about the narrator’s memories of Sarita Subercaseaux, his supportive head librarian and eventual high-school headmistress, if this section exists only so far as to cast our narrator’s overly creative memories into question? (“She died before you were born,” his mother says. “You must be getting mixed up, remembering things I told you.”) The circumstances of the story also require far too much front-end explaining, which would be fine if it led to some sort of pay-off, but if it’s not going to make sense, or if it’s going to cheat the rules, why bother establishing any in the first place? Instead, Aira gives a lesson on the mysterious “Musical Brain,” some sort of miraculous appearance (of cardboard, painted “phosphorescent pink and crisscrossed with blue veins’) and which emits constant music at a whispered pitch. Here’s the opportunity, he thinks, to comment on the class divide of the community of Pringles, where they live, and so the son remembers how the mother has a serious aversion to the “unwashed masses” — the yokels — who chose to watch a “vulgar, broad comedy” instead of paying respects to the Musical Brain. No word, incidentally, on why these low comedies are so morally awful, while the circus — their next stop — is perfectly acceptable.

And here we pause, for “an explanation is required.” Again, I don’t mind Aira’s casual narrative style, the way in which he waffles from one beat to the next, pausing to occasionally rewrite an earlier scene, fill us in on the pertinent details, or to correct himself. These are acceptable quirks of an unreliable first-person narrative. And yet, again, I fault Aira for these insubstantial additions. Normally, the material you add in some way changes the stakes of the story, elevates the mood, or changes our appreciation of the characters; at the very least, they should tell us something about the narrator. But Aira’s child, as with mostly everything in this story, is a cipher. Aira even acknowledges this, noting as he tells the story that the arrival of three dwarfs (with the circus), two twins and the woman who is married to one and having an affair with the other, that this is really about the effect the disappearance of all three has on the town: “How could something as conspicuous as three dwarfs go unnoticed in that tiny glass box [of their town]? The episode began to take on a supernatural coloring. The dimensions of a dwarf turned out to be problematic, at least for the unsettled collective imagination.” Problematic, indeed! As it turns out, this isn’t really about the dwarfs, either: after the narrator’s sister accidentally shatters the Musical Brain (yes, shatters the cardboard object…), we find the corpses of the two dead dwarf twins, and even the best of descriptions would have trouble connecting these dots. (“They were like playing-card images, dressed in their little black suits, their faces and hands as white as porcelain; the color contrast made them visible through the dark red of the blood, which had escaped from wounds in both throats like open, screaming mouths.”)

I refer back to that opening quote, now. For remember: Aira thinks of his story as a series of stars. Perhaps you can arrange them into a constellation. Perhaps you can find fleeting momentum and narrative behind one shooting through the air. But ultimately, they’re individual objects, suspended in space, and if you try to fit them all together, the universe starts to collapse, be it from an unsustainable gravity, some sort of physical paradox, or just plain impracticality. I may have stretched that metaphor, mind you, but in no way have I gone as far as Aira, to whose story I now return: yes, there were dead dwarfs in the Musical Brain. As for that third dwarf, “the strangest creature ever produced by a theatrical deus ex machina” (and a self-reference to deus ex machina is hardly ever a good sign), she bursts out of “the large plaster effigy of Juan Pascual Pringles that adorned the apex of the proscenium” (where that low-comedy play is taking place), reveals her wings, turns into a giant dragonfly, and gives birth out atop the theater’s facade. Adding to the over-the-top descriptions of such mutant behaviors: “Down in the street, two of the clowns, with their motley costumes and painted smiles, climbed up on cars, and each waved a flattened dwarf body of his head like a banner.” Oh, and since we’ve come this far, remember Sarita Subercaseaux, the figment of the narrator’s inherited mother-memories? She shows up “with her big beehive hairdo, her pink, abundantly powdered face, her blue dress, and her little wedge-heeled shoes” and, without explanation (the author, again, comments on his own lack of said explanations) balances a book atop the egg the creature has left behind: “In the legendary history of Pringles,” reads the final line, “the curious figure thus produced has come to symbolize the founding of the Municipal Library.”

Ultimately, this story seems unnecessary to me. The point that I take away from it is that imagination is a powerful thing, and yet, all stories demonstrate that. By making this about nothing more than a literally literary creation myth (while at the same time abandoning anything “literal”), the story achieves nothing other than its own existence. No plot development, no character growth, just mass confusion for the sake of demonstrative art.

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