Has César Aira Written a Zombie Novel?
Dinner is César Aira’s eleventh novel in translation, out of an estimated ninety novels by a man who produces from two to four each year. Much like the others, Dinner is very short (108 pages), eccentric in structure and unpredictable in narrative, halfway between a doodle and a literary Rubik’s Cube. The narrator of this one is a 60-year-old man living with his mother, who considers himself a failure “without a job, without a family, without prospects.” (p. 91) He confides, “[I’ve] …reached the conclusion that I would never be the protagonist of any story. The only thing I could hope for was to make an appearance in somebody else’s.” (p. 34) Dead broke, a confirmed bachelor who has never held a decent job, he has a few ulterior motives, as he later reveals, in accepting a friend’s dinner invitation one Saturday night.
The narrator’s host is a building contractor in the small Argentinean town with the unlikely name of Colonel Pringles, Aira’s actual hometown and the setting for many of his novels. He is the last friend the narrator has left, an Italian immigrant from the coarsest strata of the proletariat who was once wealthy enough to have the narrator’s old-fashioned, woodworked double doors installed in his home when the narrator’s old home was demolished. He is now, however, rumored to be broke
At the candlelight dinner, the sociable fellow is able to entertain the narrator’s mother with the names of many old families. For Mama, who lives in a world of some mental confusion, all of her conversations revolve around the people of the town, and though she basically dislikes the friend (she’s convinced he’s a bad influence on her son), she greatly enjoys hearing the names of so many old Pringles families.
Part One, the first third of this tiny novel, consists of their dinner party. Rather than sequential or chronological, the narrative’s organization is associative. One thing reminds the narrator of another, and then another. For instance, the friend possesses a one-hundred-year-old French windup toy of a miniature old-fashioned bedroom, which reminds the narrator of the house of two seamstresses where his mother took him as a child sixty years before, where one of the seamstresses had a stiff finger like wood and on one visit part of the floor had fallen in creating a scary pit. Their dinner is described in similar narrative loops.
Part Two continues after the dinner, as the author returns home and turns on the news. At that point, thirty pages into the story, the famous tele-journalist Maria Rosa comes roaring into the novel on her scooter, on her way to cover a story in the town cemetery, where the dead have been reported rising from their graves. Whether this is happening on television or in real life becomes unclear. What is clear is that Maria Rosa takes the story with her. [Spoiler alert] The little novel then abruptly turns into a zombie tale with a plague of the dead laying siege to the town –all of which may just be the narrator’s groggy indigestion and a particularly vivid nightmare blending into a late-night telecast of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
Instead of the narrator, the reader follows a guard with a reputation for being a drunk, a seven-year-old girl who hides in a chicken coop, and the mayor in the Palacio Municipal, among others. The mayhem is standard stuff, though not at all gory, and like the best horror movies, it has its moments of outrageous black comedy. While the Mayor, the last survivor in the Palacio Municipal, is hiding in a closet, scarcely daring to breathe or make the slightest sound, his cell phone rings in his pocket, an angry constituent telling him he no longer supports him in office.
Zombie literature usually provides little more than a shallow metaphor for survivalism, where any friend or family member trusted for a lifetime can instantly turn into an enemy. Aira uses the overworked zombie lore for new, richer ends. His dead chase after human brains to slurp up the endorphins of the living, but the brain-eating has a source in metaphor – “…we all need endorphins to overcome the animosity and tedium of the world…” (p. 77) [Spoiler alert] And the ultimate weapon to defeat the zombies, though teetering on fairytale, has an unusually rich resonance: if you name them, they return to the grave. Each individual name “…was the magical and infallible key that made them desist…” (p.86)
The heroes of the town turn out to be the elderly who remember family names, and Mama’s “lifelong passionate interest in the lives of others” becomes her saving grace. Or so a reader would think. By the conclusion of Part Two, Aira has created a nightmarish situation where what has always seemed the mother’s weakness for gossip will make her powerful in the deadly disaster that engulfs the town—not to mention that the narrator’s professed minor flaw (never remembering anyone’s name) could prove fatal.
A perfect set-up, but this iconoclastic author’s concluding Part Three never goes where common sense would tell him to go, and Aira takes a left turn into an odd tale of a brother and sister with the same name – in other words, providing his own unique, atypical brand of Aira ending.
Dinner by César Aira, trans. by Katherine Silver (New Directions, $13.95, 9780811221085, October 6, 2015)