The Spy

by César Aira, recommended by BOMB

EDITOR’S NOTE by Mónica de la Torre

César Aira has become a cult fiction writer in his native Argentina as well as throughout Latin America for his hyperrealist treatment of surreal or implausible scenarios and his aggressive defiance of literary conventions. His trajectory has also gone hand-in-hand with a unique take on genre and the book as medium. The first thing to catch one’s eye upon taking a quick glance at his bio is that he has published a truly staggering amount of books. BOMB was one of the first American publications to publish Aira in translation. When running “The Spy” in 2001, Aira was credited with having published 40 books. New Directions, his American publisher — which will release Chris Andrews’s translation of the extraordinary novella Shantytown this fall — notes that Aira has authored more than 80 titles in Latin America and Spain, which have been translated into at least seven languages.

Aira is undeniably prolific, but he admits that his production might appear more voluminous than it actually is, given that at least half of all his published works are under 20 pages long. In an interview on Denmark’s Louisiana Channel, he explains that he dislikes collections and therefore prefers “one book to one story.” Even a work like “The Spy,” which is closer to a story than a novel, would be more fit for an individual chapbook than a collection of short stories. “Big publishing houses want fat books,” Aira argued, and so his output has been bolstered by the emergence of independent micropublishers in Argentina and Latin America that have been willing to put out his unclassifiable works. Their print runs and distribution might be lacking in numbers, but Aira is actually fond of this model. He likes that his books “don’t go offering themselves to readers — like prostitutes, almost,” and prefers that readers make the effort to go searching for them. He consider himself an “unrepentant reader” who has always been able to hunt down seemingly unattainable works, and as such, believes that if people really want to read his books, they will find them.

And so indeed, after hearing much of Aira but unable to find any of his work translated into English, BOMB commissioned Alfred Mac Adam to render “The Spy” into English for the Winter 2001 Americas Issue. Mac Adam knew of Aira, but recalls that “his works were hard to get in those days, because he published (as he does to this day) in obscure, often provincial presses.” Later Aira was kind enough to grant us a rare interview in 2009. In a typically understated fashion, he states that prior to embarking on a new work, he has no grand ambitions — he’s only a writer when he’s writing.

Mónica de la Torre, Senior Editor BOMB Magazine

The Spy

IF I WERE A CHARACTER IN A PLAY, the lack of true privacy would arouse in me feelings of profound mistrust, disquiet, suspicion. In some way — I don’t know how — I would feel the silent, attentive presence of the audience. I would always be aware that my words are being heard by others, and if that can actually fit in with some parts of my dialogue (there are intelligent things we say to show off before the largest number of people possible, and there are also times when we regret there isn’t an audience to appreciate those things), I’m sure that there would be other parts that would have to be spoken in an authentic and not fictitious intimacy. And those would be the most important parts for understanding the plot: the entire interest, the whole value of the play would be based on them. But their importance would not stimulate my loquacity; to the contrary; I would take the requirements for keeping any secrets very literally, as I always have. To start, I’d prefer not to speak. I’d say “Let’s go into another room, I have to tell you something important that no one else should hear.” But at that point the curtain would fall, and in the next scene we’d enter that other room, which would be the same stage with different decor. I’d look all around, sniff the ineffable… I know there are no seats in fiction, and in my character as a character I’d know that more than ever, because my very existence would be based on that knowledge, but even so…

“No, I can’t speak here, either… ” Of course, finally convinced that the stage would follow me to the ends of the earth, I’d sidestep the issue by saying anodyne, noncompromising things, and sacrificing the play’s interest. But that’s exactly what I could not sacrifice, ever, because my existence as a character would depend on it. So the moment would arrive when there would be nothing else to do but speak. But even then I’d resist, possessed by a horror stronger than I was! My mouth would be sealed, the keys to the situation (at least the keys I controlled) would never be able to come to light, in no way whatsoever. Never! And I would see fade away — as if I were in the impotence of a nightmare — a portion, large or small, perhaps important, even fundamental, of the aesthetic value of the play. And all my fault. The other characters, disoriented and, so to speak, mutilated, would begin to move around and act like so many dummies, lifeless, bereft of a destiny, as in those failed dramas where nothing takes place…

Then, and only then, I would clutch at one last hope: that the audience would intuit what it was all about, despite my refusal to say it. An outlandish hope, because I would be concealing facts and not just mere comments or opinions. If what I had to reveal, to reveal to someone, with the maximum of discretion and with very specific motives, is that I’m the secret agent of a foreign power, and that in all my prior and subsequent dialogues that fact is kept secret (the author, if he’s good, will have made sure of that), how will the audience know it? It’s ridiculous to hope they will deduce it correctly from my silence, from my scruples about privacy, most of all because I could be anything else: instead of a spy, I could be the bastard son of the owner of the house or a fugitive who’s assumed the personality of someone he killed.

But to base that hope on the superhuman intelligence of the audience, as insane and everything as it is, isn’t that the reverse of a fear, also quite absurd but which reality has justified many times — the fear that they’ll figure it all out despite everything? If I refuse to speak, if I exercise such prudence to the point of obeying a mistrust of supernatural degree (such as suspecting that in reality one of the four walls is missing and that there are people sitting in seats listening to what I say), it’s precisely because I have secrets to keep, serious secrets. In harboring the hope that they’ll guess my secret, am I not comporting myself exactly the opposite way I should? How could it occur to me even to call that “hope” in real life? It’s art, in which I launched myself when I became a character, in which I saddled myself with this extravagant aberration. In art there is one condition that takes precedent over all others: to do things well. Which means I’ve got to be a good actor in a good drama: if I don’t do it well, there will be no effect, the show will fall into nothingness. “To do things well” and “to do it” go together in art, fused, as nowhere else. So if my suspicion of being hypersensitive obliges me to disassociate them, I have no other option but hope: a fatal hope, the equivalent of death. Because my secrets are of such a gravity that I would not survive their revelation. That last bit I’m discovering now in the predicament in which I find myself, and I could almost say that I entered the fatal game of art to discover it.

Until now, I’ve lived secure in the knowledge that my secrets are well kept: they’re in the past, and the past is inviolable. Only I have the key to that treasure chest. At least, that’s what I believe: that the past is definitively, tightly shut, that its secrets, which are mine, will never be revealed to anyone unless I start telling them, which I have no intention of doing. But sometimes, I think that chest is not so inviolable. In some way, time could go backward, in some way my imagination can’t manage to foresee — although or because it’s my imagination precisely that leads me to these exorbitant suspicions — and then what’s hidden will become visible. But as often as I think it, I also think that it really is safe, inviolable, definitive, that there’s no reason to worry on that score, and that if what I want to do is worry I can do so for other reasons. For so many that if I start enumerating them I’d never finish, because a new one will always turn up. But all of them meet in the center, which is the site in the center of the illuminated stage, where I tremble in my paralysis, where I tremble and break out in a cold sweat.

Fused with me, there is an actor. I can’t separate him from myself, except through negatives: I don’t know what he wants, and I don’t know what he can do. I don’t even know what he’s thinking. He’s a statue of fear, an automaton of apprehension; he’s identical to me in every fiber. The author has written him into the play thematically, which produces the doppelgänger. The idea has been used so much it’s worn out: the actor who plays two characters who turn out to be doubles or twins. With the limitations inherent to the theater, the two characters, if one actor’s going to play both, must develop in different spaces. There is always a door between them, an entrance or an exit, a mistake or a change of decor. The mechanics of staging dislocate the spaces, but to the degree to which they create the fiction, they also create a continuity between them, where the horror of meeting the double face-to-face takes place. It’s possible to go a bit further, in the direction of Grand Guignol, and bring about the meeting by means of makeup, costume, lights, and taking advantage of the actors’s distance from the audience. (One important restriction: this applies to modern theater, because ancient theater worked the opposite way, using masks.) Movies, on the other hand — thanks to montage — can do it perfectly. Television, though it possesses montage, cannot use it because two elements intervene, time and the gaze of the spectator, the latter of which is too close and, as it were, sees thoughts. In theater, when we don’t want to resort to doubtful tricks (or when we actually don’t have twin actors), we have to thematize the thematization of the double in such a way that the two identical characters are revealed at the end to be only one. All the preceding seems very confused to me, and I should say it in some other way (not by providing examples but, again, by thematizing) if I want to make myself understood. Sooner or later you get to a point where it’s vitally important to be understood correctly. The hidden can’t sustain itself without that transparency upon which it becomes visible. The hidden: those are the secrets. I have secrets, just as everyone has them. I don’t know if mine are more serious than others, but I take all kinds of precautions so they don’t come out. It’s natural that your affairs seem important to you: the ego is a natural amplifier. If we’re dealing with a character caught right in the middle of the representation of the play to which he belongs, in the very center of the plot, the amplification reaches deafening levels. The vertigo of the action impedes any distancing. Well then, if my most protected secret is what I did in the past, perhaps the secret will come out on its own, in the facts, since according to healthy logic the result of what happened should be the current state of things. But anyone who tries to unmask me with the classical “by their acts shall ye know them” will be left empty handed because what I want to hide is exactly that in my case the process was just the reverse: the acts remained in the past, and no one would be able to deduce what they are by contemplating the flower open in the present. We can attribute that curious aberration to the nature of my original action, which consisted in a separation, in a “distancing” with respect to my very self. I thought I was seriously ill (I won’t go into details), and I committed the infamy of abandoning my wife and small children. The years went by, I changed personality, I lived. I achieved the dream of living. When I was young, I knew nothing about life, and later it was the same; I never knew what it was. The most I managed to know was that life existed, and love, and adventure: that there was something beyond books. And since I was always an optimist and always had faith in my intelligence, I came to the alarming conclusion that I too could learn what life was and how to live it. I’m not looking for excuses, but at least I can explain myself. My problem was to have been too ambitious. I wanted everything, that is, two things: intelligence and life. Everyone else just leapt into life without a second thought, as soon as the opportunity turned up. Brutal, mistaken, criminal… but because of their simple decision to live, they provoked the transmutation of their vices and ended up happy, while I wanted to consume intelligence and reach happiness from the other side. Well… I’m not blaming anyone.

In sum, before it was too late, in despair, I broke with my past. When the curtain goes up, I’m the double of the man I was, I’m my own twin, my identical other. Twenty years have passed, and I’m still in the same spot (I can’t fool myself, even by being another, my own other). I’ve learned computer science, and the same intellectual brilliance I exercised in literature I now use in politics and betrayal, and now it turns out I’m a double agent, infiltrated both in the high command of the forces occupying Argentina and in the secret coordination of the resistance. The action takes place in the palatial salons of the Villa de Olivos, at around midnight during a reception in honor of the ambassadors from Atlantis. I’m wearing evening clothes, extremely elegant, cold, competent, hypocritical as always. The most astonishing thing is that I haven’t aged; the mirrors show me the image of the man I was at age 30, but I know that old age is just a step away, behind a door. I always thought that my youthful air (which when I was 30 already caught people’s eye) is a symptom of my lack of life. It’s nothing more than a suspended sentence, but until when does the suspension last? The biological process follows its implacable course, but if after a change of name, personality, and profession the suspension continues, I don’t really know what I should do.

I’m a leading man, the supreme human flower open in the present, in the theater of the world. “By my acts” no one would be able to know me, because I’ve left my acts in another life. But low and behold, the acts return, and in the most unexpected way. They’re returning tonight, at this very moment, so punctual that it seems quite incredible: but that’s the law of the theater of the world. If a man lives happily and tranquilly with his family for decades, and one day a psychopath gets into the house and takes everyone prisoner, rapes them, kills them, on which day will the movie that tells their story be set? On the previous day?

The staff reports an extra guest, for me the most surprising: my wife Liliana (I should have said my ex-wife, the wife of the man I was). Of course, she has no idea I’m here, that I’m a gray eminence in the high command; everyone thinks I’m dead, disappeared; as for me, during these past 20 years, I’ve heard nothing about her. That’s how radical my break with the past was. She could have been dead and buried, but she isn’t: she’s alive and here… I saw her by chance, from a distance, in the golden salon; she didn’t see me. I sent my secretary to check, and meanwhile I strolled into other salons in this labyrinthine palace. I didn’t need excuses to do so, because during the “real time” of the reception, the closed door meetings take place. The situation is incendiary; imminent changes are foreseen; there is a considerable charge of nervousness in the air.

Liliana came to the reception to have an audience with the ambassadors from Atlantis; she won’t have another chance because they will be in this country for barely a few hours. They’re here to sign a bridge credit agreement and will leave at midnight: from the party, they’ll go directly to the airport in limousines whose motors are already running. Liliana’s intention is to ask to have her son returned to her alive. He was arrested — I only found out just now. Her son is also mine, Tomasito, my first born, whom I stopped seeing when he was a baby, when I left home, and whom I’d forgotten. A simple calculation tells me he must be 22 years old. Hmm… So he entered the opposition, joined the resistance, and was captured. If he got involved in politics, and in that way, it was certainly because of his mother’s influence. Now I’m remembering Liliana’s hatred for Menem, Neustadt, Cavallo, and Zulemita… I can also explain how she was able to enter the villa tonight: the leaders of the resistance, of which I’m a member, must have given her the invitation: I myself had a couple sent to them as I always do for official affairs, just in case they want to infiltrate someone to plant a bomb or kidnap someone. But knowing her, I know that she couldn’t come alone: she’s so incapable when it comes to taking action that not even being in the process of fighting for her son’s life could she have done without help. Exactly — I discover she’s accompanied by a lawyer from Amnesty, who is also (only I know this) a prominent member of the resistance’s central committee.

But there is something else, something that challenges all imagination, something I discern by listening in on some conversations while I’m hidden behind doors or curtains: Liliana has gone insane. The logical conclusion would be that her reason could not stand the anguish of having a disappeared son and having to face the situation alone. But I suspect reality is less logical, that she’s been insane for a long time, that she lost her mind suddenly or little by little and imperceptibly ever since I left her. All of which makes me think this is the most obvious manifestation of her dementia, one I can detect from my hiding place: she’s saying she’s accompanied in this petition by her lawyer… and her husband! Could she have remarried? No, because she refers to me by my full name: César Aira, the famous (she exaggerates) writer. She says I’ve stayed behind in the salon speaking with someone and that I’ll be joining her immediately. She’s crazy, hallucinating, poor thing. I instantly make a bold decision: I’II make her illusion real, reassume my old personality and appear at her side before the ambassadors… not only a pious gesture but one with a very practical goal: I know exactly what must be said to move the Atlantis ambassadors to act, to put pressure on the occupation forces so Tomasito will get out. Without my intervention, he doesn’t have a hope. And I can do it properly, because even though I abandoned and repudiated my family, he’s still my son, my blood.

I have a room in the Villa de Olivos that I use when I have to spend the night here during crisis periods (of which there are many) or when my services are needed around the clock. I run to it and change clothes. I choose a casual style that most resembles how I remember my style in my previous life. I tousle my hair, put on glasses, and there we are! I make my entrance: Good evening, excuse my delay, I’m César Aira, the father of the disappeared boy. The mad woman accepts me with naturalness, that’s why she’s mad; 20 years of absence mean nothing to her disturbed mind. But not entirely: taking me aside, she scolds me for not changing my sweater… you’ve got others, this one’s all stained… they’re going to think I’m a slob… you could have put on other trousers, they’re ironed… She doesn’t change! My entire marriage comes back in waves, marriage is a sum of small details, any one of which represents all the others. Things are not so easy. During the exposition, I have to slip away using some pretext, put on my evening clothes, comb my hair, attend to the leaders of the occupation who need me to discuss matters of the greatest urgency: they’re predicting that tonight there will be an explosion of the tensions in the high command. The concrete result will be a coup (they’re offering me the presidency of the central bank); there will be executions and murders among them, which will be hidden from public opinion. In an intermediary room (everything is taking place very quickly) I again become “the writer” César Aira, at Liliana’s side. And later, I once again put on my tuxedo. It’s all entrances and exits much in the vaudeville style, complicated moreover by a mission I set for myself: to tell the lawyer from Amnesty about the coup, together with instructions for a plan I’ve devised so the resistance can take advantage of the internal convulsion and arouse the people at the exact moment when the occupation forces will have no leaders. It must take place tonight. The palace coup will be carried out by relying on speed and silence: they calculate it will be over in a few hours, before dawn (they’ve taken advantage of the highly publicized visit of the Atlantis ambassadors as a façade and this reception to gather together all the conspirators and their victims without arousing suspicion), it would never occur to them that the resistance could find out about it as it was happening and make a lightning strike … and it will! At least it will if I can tell the man who’s supposedly the lawyer, whom I know to be a member of the resistance’s central committee. In my earlier conversations I arranged things to keep him busy so he couldn’t show any surprise at the unexpected appearance of “César Aira.” Now, in my other guise, in evening clothes and with my hair slicked down, I take him aside…it has to be very, very aside. I know very well, better than anyone, that “the walls have ears,” especially here, but I also know there are many small rooms and offices where I can take him to make the revelation — I myself directed the placement of microphones, I know where they are and how to get into the silent zones. Even so, I’m beset by the suspicion — completely irrational for my new technocrat personality — that we’re being heard. I feel as if suddenly the fourth wall were missing, and that there are people sitting in the darkness, paying close attention to everything I might say. It’s the typical kind of fantasy that would have occurred to the writer I was and who’s now returning. I resist the temptation to accept him, but I don’t dare reject him completely; there’s too much at stake. So I say to the lawyer, “No, wait a minute, I can’t talk here, come to the office next door.” But when we’re there, the same thing happens, and if we move again, the suspicion comes along with us. The expense in useless sets is huge; it could only be justified by record-setting audiences, but then a vicious circle is created, because the more spectators there are, the more my suspicion grows that I’m being spied on and the more often I have to move in search of a privacy that continues to flee. And besides, the minutes are passing without any advance in the action. It’s catastrophic, the failure of the play. I don’t know how to fix things; actually, I know that at this point, there’s nothing to be done. My error was that in the enthusiasm of the action I forgot that this was a theatrical performance. More clearly, I didn’t forget, but instead didn’t know, because I can’t know it or have ever known it, since for me, as a character, all this is reality. I should clarify that this scene aborted by my infinite postponements and displacements was fundamental, because until now the audience (I no longer know if they’re hypothetical or real) had no way to know why the same actor was playing two characters who were so different, so the conversation with the lawyer was conceived as a grand revelation, and something like the general explanation of the intrigue. Everything’s falling apart. Nothing important is being lost, because the play is ridiculous, melodramatic, based on facile tricks. Perhaps the very principle of the work wasn’t worthwhile, and the development was defective. While I was a writer, I thought I was a good one, but nothing confirmed such an idea in reality — not success, not my personal satisfaction. Those occasional admirers who were always turning up confirmed nothing. I thought death would be a solution, a severing of the Gordian knot, but ever since my disappearance 20 years ago now, things have gone on the same as before: a few readers, always in universities, writing theses on me, and nothing else. They seem interested and even enthusiastic, but they aren’t an audience. The audience would have made me rich, and I wouldn’t have had to drift off in fantasies. The way things have turned out, the doubts persist, suspense is maintained, and there will be no denouement. Between my life and my death as a writer the same suspicion sets in that paralyzes me and keeps me from speaking in the to-ing and fro-ing between the theater’s virtual and real spaces.

From La trompeta de mimbre, 1998.


About the Author

César Aira was born in Coronel Pringles, Argentina, in 1949. Wildly popular in Latin America, he has published more than seventy books of short fictions and essays.

About the Translator

Alfred Mac Adam teaches Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University. He has translated Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Alfredo Bryce Echenique, and Julio Cortázar, among others. His most recent publication is an introduction to The Violent Land a novel by the Brazilian Jorge Amado (Penguin Books).

About the Guest Editor

BOMB has been publishing artists in conversation since 1981.

About the Recommender

More about the recommender

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