The OF Blog: César Aira, Parménides

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

César Aira, Parménides

As a result, he had to invent a history which was not history.  Despite the apparent contradiction, such a thing was not very mysterious.  The majority of histories were not histories.  It seemed to him that it was very simple to enlace some things with others from a vague proclaiming of knowing.  "You will know this, and when you know it you will know this other..."  From this he thematized its own chain; there there was a secret joke, because who was proposing to know was he himself, and the text was his tool. (p. 43)


Because poetry, not wanting to say anything with the instrument that served in order to say things, said something, which was at the time something and nothing.  He loved that enigma, but he was convinced that it could not last.  It was too extravagant.  That it was the most precious.  Ephemeral, poetry was a rare flower which had opened itself through by chance, and the miracle had desired that it opened itself just when he lived.  In the future, a more reasonable humanity would have good use of prose. (p. 45)

Argentine author César Aira often utilizes sparse, quick-hitting prose pieces that rarely extend more than 120 pages to discuss elements of human fear, imagination, and inspiration in ways that grab a reader's attention.  In his 2005 novel, Parménides, he mixes fact and fiction, historia con historia, in order to explore relationships between belief and truth and reality and imagination.  This story begins in a Greek colony in the Calabria region of southern Italy, with a ruler named Parmenides commissioning a young poet, Perinola, to write a book for him that would bear Parmenides' name.  Readers who are aware of just who the historical Parmenides is might have just had their metaphorical ears perk up, but for those unaware, let's just say that choosing this historical personage to be a ruler is one more level of Aira's blurring of fact and fiction in this tale.

Parmenides wants Perinola to compose a poem that would encompass Parmenides' thoughts and attitudes on Nature; the details Perinola is to glean from observing the ruler.  In reading this, I could not help but to think that it was fortuitous that I read this book just after Živković's The Ghostwriter, for in many ways, Aira's short novel goes further down the path of discussing the nature of story composition and how casual links are crafted and then presented as being "natural" and self-obvious to the reader.  As Perinola ruminates on his ruler's request and as he listens to Parmenides, he begins to insert notions that he has developed over the years, creating a work of poetry that posits questions on the nature of reality and if indeed what we believe to be "real" may in fact be the largest illusion of them all.  Aira, despite the paucity of pages, develops this slowly and in a fashion where the reader is left to infer as much as s/he is given information, whether it be from Perinola, Parmenides, or others.

The end result is a thoughtful, reflective novel that provides no solutions to the questions raised throughout the novel.  But it certainly does make the reader think in a fashion that feels "natural," as if the topic were something that was half-remembered and yet somehow never fully grasped.  Parménides, which is not yet available in English translation, is perhaps one of Aira's finest works and it is a story that I will be re-reading several times in the years to come in order to ensure that I take the most from this impressive reading. 


Eileen said...

I remember your recommendation of Ghosts awhile back. It's definitely on my TBR list and I hope to get to it soon. Hopefully New Directions will release Parménides too, because the concept does sound very interesting. The relationship between history, truth, and narrative is something I've discussed quite a bit with other books. A lot of authors seem to touch on it in some way.

Jason said...


This is a general comment, not tied to this specific post. (Not sure where else to put it.) I just wanted to say that I just stumbled on your blog, and I'm really looking forward to coming back here often.

As a lover of Joyce, Faulkner and Pynchon, and at the same time a reader who is slowly, with awe and wonder, threading his way through the Book of the New Sun, I feel right at home here. Carry on! :)

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