REVIEW: The Seamstress and the Wind by César Aira

The Seamstress and the WInd

by César Aira (translated by Rosalie Knecht)

New Directions


Reading The Seamstress and the Wind is like reading a story written by a five-year-old. It’s delightful and hilarious, it’s divorced from reality, and at the end you pretend like you understand. But here’s the great thing about Aira: You don’t have to try to understand. You can just lean back and enjoy.

Part of the delight of experiencing a child’s story — like Axe Cop, or the short film made by the child actors of Super 8— comes from how children parrot the rules of storytelling imperfectly, remaking them in the process. They’ve absorbed all of our cultural clichés and conventions in a very short time, but haven’t limited their imaginations to them; their stories make the clichés and conventions fresh and new.

Aira does this, but on a sophisticated level; what is delightful in Axe Cop is pure joy in The Seamstress and the Wind. There are a lot of cool things going on that deserve careful literary criticism, but what’s most interesting is how well the book functions as a story while breaking all the basic rules of storytelling. Aira’s central experiment in Seamstress is to wrest the craft of storytelling from its moorings to see if it floats. And, like the shape-shifting “local candy” of the book’s setting, it does.

Seamstress begins, like a good story should, with an inciting incident: A boy goes missing. In the exposition before that, Aira ruminates on the novelist’s problem of discovering plot, making jokes about the autobiographical source material of a fiction writer. When the plot finally comes to him in a dream, he forgets it, and spends a lovely chapter celebrating the sensation of forgetting:

A vague little trace remains, in which I hope there is a loose end that I could pull and pull … although then, to go on with the metaphor, pulling on that strand would erase the embroidered figure and I would be left with a meaningless white thread between my fingers.

The “meaningless thread” is a pun on the plot to which Aira eventually gets on: The missing boy is suddenly a different boy, then it’s the first again; his mother chases after him in a taxi; and then we never hear from him again, except for a brief hope by his father that he’s been taken in “by his inseparable friend, César Aira.” (Don’t try to understand). Other things happen; there’s a car crash, there’s a poker game. Sometimes the rule of causality applies (a white woman becomes black after giving birth to a monster, or after being taken prisoner — I would argue it’s the second); other times, things happen without cause (a man builds a functioning car out of the carcass of a prehistoric armadillo. Don’t try to understand).

Again and again, Aira sets up the expectations of a story — a character sets a goal, then takes steps to fulfill it — and then lets those expectations hang while he moves onto the next thing: “An instant, too, has its eternity. We’ll leave Delia in that eternity while I look after the other guests,” he says, of a woman about to be killed by a monster; and we leave her, and never hear another word. The book ends, in medias res, in a desert littered with Chekhovian guns unshot.

What’s amazing is that the story breaks all of the rules and yet works. It works as a piece of art whose fresh, gorgeous images carry rich meanings about the nature of transformation. But it also works as a story that makes you miss your subway stop.

Don’t try to understand; to not understand is to be in on the joke.

— K. Reed Petty is a writer from maryland. You can follow her on twitter @pettykate.

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