I’m kicking off Translation week for Novellas in November with a bold and frankly quite odd book from Argentine author César Aira. Aira’s work has been compared to Jorge Luis Borges and Roberto Bolaño, and his work is characterised by playful juxtapositions and unexpected tangents that defy any standard idea of plot. Aira has described his writing technique as “la fuga hacia adelante” — writing without revising the previous day’s work — and in this novella, deftly translated by Katherine Silver, the titular dinner is merely a starting point for a surreal chain of events that are both terrifying and hilarious.
The unnamed narrator of Dinner is a 60-year-old bachelor who is down on his luck. Bankrupt, depressed and living with his judgmental mother, he is struggling to know how to turn his life around. One evening, he and his mother are invited to dinner by an old friend, who, in contrast, is a wealthy and successful building contractor. At the dinner, their host regales them with stories of his work and travels, all told in exaggerated vignettes, which have a fairy-tale quality to them. When talking about the fact that he hasn’t used sage in the meal, he blames it on an 88 year-old dwarf falling on his herb garden.
All the stories he told us could have been illustrated with story-book pictures. Even those he told in parentheses or as digressions, as when he explained why he couldn’t use the sage he grew in his own garden for the meal. It turned out that an 88-year-old dwarf had fallen on the planting bed from a great height and had crushed his delicate herbs. Was that not astonishing?
The host and the man’s mother discuss their shared knowledge of the residents of their town, Pringles, and the dreamlike imagery that results from these stories is matched by the fantastical collection of objects on display in the host’s house. The host is a collector of curiosities, mostly antique toys, automatons which create a short and exaggerated form of life with their surreal movements.
The whole evening seems to blur the lines between what is real and what is invented and this blurring continues as the novella progresses. Returning home, the man’s mother goes to bed and he finds himself surfing the TV channels mindlessly, only to land on a channel with is broadcasting live from Pringles with reports that the dead are rising from their graves.
The novella then takes an abrupt turn and becomes an all-out zombie narrative, as the living dead march from Pringles cemetery to attack the town. At this point it feels as if Aira is daring himself to see what he can get away with, and he does get away with it, thanks to the wit and skill of his take on zombie movie tropes. The undead of Dinner aren’t eating brains, instead they are slurping on the endorphins of their victims, growing stronger through ‘little drops of happiness and hope’.
There were thousands of them…corpses that kept spreading over the nocturnal checkerboard of the town… (who) had still not tasted any happiness drops, and they were sharpening their straws. Those that had partaken of the strange nectar, wanted more; along with their snorts, they burst out in mechanical fits of laughter, something between barks and growls, and they improvised dances in the middle of the street’
The zombie attack is surreal, detailed and often hilarious, but there is no hint as to whether this is occurring in the narrator’s imagination, in a spoof reality TV show, or in real life. The attack is defeated when the townspeople realise that calling the zombies by their living names will send them back to their graves. As the narrator wakes up the next morning, seemingly unaffected by the zombie attack which has decimated his town, the question of what actually happened remains unanswered.
In interviews Aira has said that his writing is often a case of improvisation and that he doesn’t believe in explanations. “The story is always about something unexplainable. The art of narration declines as explanations are added.” Although Dinner comes across like a zombie film sandwiched incongruously between a philosophical treatise on aging and responsibility, its themes echo between both strands. Like the toy automatons, the zombies come briefly to life, imitate reality, then stop again while the naming of the towns citizens, which so interests the dinner party host and the narrator’s mother, becomes the very thing that puts an end to the death and destruction.
In some ways Dinner is a frustrating novella, unresolved and open-ended, but it also combines absurdist terror with realist humour in a way that drives you to read on, if only to see where Aira will dare to go next. In these short pages he combines realism, magic realism and surrealism and a thrilling sense that anything can, and often will, happen.
READ ON: KINDLE
Number read: 351
number remaining: 395
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!