NEW DIRECTIONS, 96 PP.
Dinner is the most recent of César Aira’s strange little novels to appear in English (translated—gorgeously—by Katherine Silver). At its center is a zombie story, but one unlike any other I have ever encountered.
The book’s narrator is an unnamed sixty-something bachelor living in Coronel Pringles, a small town (Aira’s hometown) in the vast flatness of the Pampas. This bachelor is, by his own account, a failure. He is bankrupt, alone, and of necessity has moved in with his elderly mother. In the book’s first section, the bachelor and his mother eat dinner at the home of the bachelor’s only remaining friend, a successful building contractor. After dinner, the friend shows the mother and the bachelor his collection of children’s toys, in particular his antique windup toys.
In the book’s second section, the bachelor and his mother return home, where the bachelor settles in on the couch. His mother goes to bed, but before she does, there is a devastating moment—just a moment—in which she tells her son, “Don’t go to bed too late,” and he responds, pathetically, “It’ s early. And tomorrow is Sunday.” On TV is a strange sort of live news broadcast. Following this, the story of Pringles’ invasion by the undead begins. The bachelor narrates the invasion as if via the newscast, but the perspective has become inexplicably omniscient.
The third section begins on the following morning. The bachelor wakes early and depressed. He squabbles with his mother. She goes out. Home alone, the bachelor wonders what the town looks like in the wake of the invasion. He calls his friend. During their conversation, the bachelor casually mentions the previous night’s zombie invasion, but his friend thinks he must be referring to a movie. They talk past each other. The ambiguity is not resolved. The book ends.
From this unpromising material Airahas crafted a beautiful, unclassifiable, funny, and deeply unsettling book. The difficulty is explaining how Aira has succeeded in doing so, and also in explaining the nature of his achievement. The longest section of Dinner is an action-driven zombie story, in some respects a familiar story, with a plot that repeatedly answers the question, “And then?” The sections that bookend it have, in contrast, no real plot, but instead rely on implication, portent. They whisper that nothing is as it should be, that a consciousness, or perhaps even a whole world, is crumbling in its foundations. The miracle of Dinner is how well its disparate elements cohere. Where Aira leaves gaps, the reader fills them in himself, as if he were interpreting a dream—his own, the bachelor’s, or Aira’s.
Consistent throughout is the quality of Aira’s thought and prose. His descriptions of the risen dead are continuous marvels. The zombies crawl from their niches in the cemetery “like ‘the spider dead,’ otherworldly greyhounds oozing slime.” They move “like insects or ostriches,” “their goose steps modified by a thousand limps”; in the moonlight, their “legions [swarm] in the silvery glow through which their passage left a green, pink, and violet wake.” One zombie’s hands are “bones poorly gloved with strips of purple flesh.” Another has “green-splotched tibias with ornate bunches of dried innards hanging down and shaking like the tails of a frock coat.” In one of the invasion’s most memorable scenes, an unsuspecting bride walks through a church toward what she, in the dim light, perceives to be a statue of Christ standing over the altar:
It was a Christ crucified, suffering, expressionistic, twisted, frankly putrefied—the work, one might say, of an insane imagination that had melded the concept of Calvary with that of Auschwitz and the aftermath of a nuclear or bacteriological apocalypse.
Insane imagination, indeed.
But perhaps what makes Dinner mostremarkable is that, of its three sections, the zombie section is the most conventionally told. The zombie narrative is in a sensefar more logical and certainly more linear in its unfolding than what comes before and after, and is much less haunting. If the zombie section follows the logic of action, the others follow the associative logic of memory and dream.
On page five, the friend shows a windup toy to the bachelor and his mother, but we do not read any description of it until page eleven. Interceding are a string of the bachelor’s memories, all portentous, and all unreliable, even to him, such as his childhood memory of the house where two seamstresses lived, “the entire room one great big pit, very deep, with dark gullies full of crumbling dirt and rocks, and water at the bottom,” and the finger of one of the seamstresses, “a finger that was hard and stiff like wood.” Interceding also are the picturesque memories of the friend—for example, the story of an eighty-eight-year-old dwarf bricklayer—which the friend himself takes as unremarkable.
And how to summarize the description of the first windup toy, and the bachelor’s attempt to get at the meaning of its mechanical play, which together require four pages? A description that is both concrete and also as fantastical as anything in the zombie section, and far more uncanny? The toy is the miniature of a bedroom, so small it fits in the palm of a hand. A blind old woman lies in its bed. When the friend winds the toy, a coffin-like door in one of the bedroom walls opens, and a fat young man entersand begins to sing the tango.
The old woman on the bed also moved, though very discreetly and almost imperceptibly: she shook her head from side to side. . . . You could tell that she was picking crumbsor fuzz off the bedcover with the thumbs and index fingers of both hands. It was a true miracle of precision mechanics. . . . I had once heard that this action of picking imaginary crumbs was typical of the dying.
Large white birds, “cranes and storks, very white,” crawl out from under the bed flapping their wings, more and more of them, until they fill the miniature bedroom.
It has been observed that it is his digressions, as much as anything else, that make Aira’s books what they are. Aira has said, “To be a writer one also has to know how to paint doors. One has to know how insects live. The writer has to be the universal man. . . . To write a novel one doesn’t have to know everything in an academic sense, but you do need to have a notion of everything that goes on in the world.” It is this notion—what the author knows or can convincingly dissemble about Argentine real-estate law, or the greater need of the poor for “active endorphins,” or the toxicity of marble dust, or the operations of antique windup toys—that gives Dinner its life.