César Aira is 63 years old. He has been, and continues to be, insanely prolific. Yet out of the 60+ books published in Spanish only eight have made their way into English. New Directions has brought out approximately one a year since 2006. The year 2012 was a banner one for Aira in the States – Varamo, a short story in The New Yorker and – this October – The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira.
Dr. Aira works miracles – he’s a kind of faith healer – who for years has been pursued by his arch-nemesis Dr. Actyn. Actyn will stop at nothing to expose Aira as a fraud. He goes so far as to create absurd scenarios, elaborate “candid camera” sets, in the hopes of tricking Dr. Aira into unwittingly performing on camera.
Of course they were hoping to see the exotic and picturesque part of the operation, the grotesque magical ritual, the touch of the ridiculous that they would know how to draw attention to, the blunder they would publicize in the tabloids, the failure.
The Miracle Cures… opens with Dr. Aira being intercepted by an ambulance on an evening stroll. Two doctors jump out claiming to have been looking for him and begging for his help to save a man’s life. The entire scene reads like a vaudeville comedy routine. Of course no one, least of all the Doctor, is taken in.
Dr. Aira betrays a fear of misstepping, of committing a faux pas (past ones haunt him), of never living down the embarrassment caused by some blunder he might make. He talks about how faith healing used to be easier, perhaps because people were more faithful or perhaps because cameras weren’t as ubiquitous. These days he just wants to write, to publish in installments his The Miracle Cures complete with diagrams and illustrations. He imagines it being released in a series of slim, hardcover books. So when two wealthy businessmen seeking his miracle cure for their brother approach him, he acquiesces quickly – almost too quickly – his usual guards lowered. Not out of greed. But in the hopes of seeing his books (which he intends to give away, free to all) published in a format he could never otherwise afford.
Aira’s (the author, not the doctor) characters have a tendency to travel through environments. The young heroine in Ghosts walks through the structural steel skeleton of the apartment building on which she and her family live. Rugendas in An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter traverses the Argentine countryside on horseback. Varamo walks us across Panama and The Seamstress and the Wind (which I own, but haven’t read yet) is one long, madcap roadtrip. These men and women stumble into moments of import, or those moments stumble upon them. In this vein there are two true events in The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira. Inside of the ambulance and in the room where he performs his miracle cure upon the dying businessman. The prose between these two scenes rambles, stream of conscious style and seems to have no focus. Aira (the author) is tricky, though. He uses those ramblings to define the event/the scene/the action like an artist uses negative space to define an object on a canvas. It’s just one of the things that I love about his writing.
César Aira writes sophisticated and tightly plotted books of modest size, filled with philosophical digressions.
Even for people who lead a routine life without incident, for those who are sedentary and methodical, who have renounced adventure and planned their future, a colossal surprise is waiting in the wings, one that will take place when the moment arises and force them to start over again on a different basis. That surprise consists of the discovery that they are, in reality, one thing or another; in other words, that they embody one human type – for example, a Miser, or a Genius, or a Believer, or anything else – a type that until then they have only known through portrayals in books, portrayals they’ve never truly taken seriously, and in any case have never seriously considered applying to reality. This revelation is inevitable at a certain point in life, and the upheaval it creates (gaping mouth, wide eyes, stupor), the sensation of a personal End of the World, of “the thing I most feared is happening to me,” is tailor-made to the frivolity of everything that preceded it.
Dr. Aira eventually performs his miracle cure for the reader, overcoming his fear of entrapment, public humiliation and subsequent shame. Aira creates a frenetic masterpiece on these pages – the Doctor’s manic movements matched by the racing of his thought processes. Dr. Aira realizes that to save the man’s life he much reshape both his patient’s history and present reality. The description of how he does this is marvelous. And the result, an ending which leaves the reader with a choice I thought reminiscent of “The lady, or the tiger?” is brilliantly executed.
I’m not sure what’s left to say? Other than something I remembered while reading this book. It was a response by the author Robin McKinley to fans who were unhappy with the ending to one of her novels – Sunshine (great book, by the way). It ended on a cliffhanger, and everyone familiar with her work knows McKinley doesn’t write sequels. To paraphrase, she said she got them and they had no right to complain because she’d done it fair & square. It occurred to me on finishing The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira that I had been fairly got. And I’ve absolutely no complaints about it at all.
Publisher: New Directions, New York (2012)
ISBN: 978 0 8112 1999 0