César Aira, trans. by Katherine Silver

May 4, 2020 
The following is excerpted from Artforum. Nominated for a Neustadt Award and the Man Booker International Prize, César Aira was born in Coronel Pringles, Argentina, in 1949. He has published at least one hundred books and was most recently the creator of a limited edition, “Valise,” for the Museum of Modern Art, NYC.

I woke up late, the sound of rain such a blessing, so merciful this oppressive summer; I had slept well thanks to the drop in temperature, and I almost could have kept sleeping . . . I looked at my wristwatch, which I always left on the corner of my bedside table when I went to sleep, and it was eight o’clock, one hour later than I usually get up. I stretched voluptuously, Liliana mumbled something without waking up. The whispering of the rain was constant; the tires of the cars driving along the blue-gray paving stones on Calle Bonifacio produced that damp clicking sound that we city dwellers learn to recognize. It was Saturday, there were no commitments or schedules or predicaments. The kids were sleeping.

Article continues below

Nevertheless, a faint alarm bell was going off in one corner of my brain, so faint that it took a while to become conscious, and even then it didn’t worry me very much; it didn’t even cause me to speed up the process of rising from bed, which I carried out at my usual calm pace, moving in slow motion with long pauses between one movement and the next in the bedroom’s greenish half-light. That modest alarm was the same I always felt when it rained in the summer: it had become a conditioned reflex. The thing is, because of the heat, we left all the windows open night and day, and near the windows were tables, chairs, and armchairs, and on these were books and magazines; there was an enormous amount of paper in the house. All of us in the family were readers, the bookshelves were overflowing, books and magazines were piled everywhere. It was inevitable that some would be within reach of the rain, which could come in through the open windows. It’s well known how destructive water is to paper. Once, many years before, I had had an unfortunate experience in that respect. I was alone at home on a suffocatingly hot day. I went out, and during my absence it started to rain, a violent downpour that forced me to wait for a while in a café; when I returned I found that water had entered through one window and wet a book, a beautiful little illustrated book about insects, which I greatly valued, and it was definitively damaged, even when I made every effort to dry it; it remained crumpled and wavy, and I reproached myself bitterly. Even though I am not a bibliophile collector and I mostly keep my perfectionism in check, I take good care of books.

That modest alarm was the same I always felt when it rained in the summer: it had become a conditioned reflex.

The truth is, that accident long ago was the only one I regretted, but it was enough to instill in me a caution that, like everything in me, took on a tinge of fanaticism over time. Or confirmed it, because it was already there. As soon as the first drop of rain fell, I’d run through the apartment, window by window, almost always without closing them because it could rain without water entering; this depended on the rain, and since our apartment was on a corner, whatever was happening at the windows that opened onto one street did not necessarily indicate what was happening at those that opened onto the other. Whenever I was going out and a storm was threatening, I’d ask Liliana if she was staying home, and if she said yes, I’d tell her to close the windows if the rain started, or to keep an eye on them; if she had plans to go out, I’d take the precaution of closing them before I left. My main concern was the living room window that opened onto Calle Bonorino; that window was behind my favorite armchair, next to which, just under the window, was a glass table where I always kept, right at hand, the magazines I was currently reading.

So many years had passed without any losses that on that morning I didn’t rush to check anything, even though I knew that we had gone to sleep with all the windows open. Summer rains, so welcome after a spell of hot weather, tend to be vertical, polite, inoffensive. The sound I had started hearing while asleep and when I woke up didn’t raise any red flags. Moreover, there is a psychological mechanism that creates compensatory optimism whenever you spend too much time worrying about something happening, thereby expelling the feared event from reality. Nevertheless, I made my usual rounds before getting busy with anything else.

Halfway through my circuit, my calm was suddenly shattered. Through one window I saw the foliage on the trees shaking violently. We lived on the second floor, at the height of the treetops, which on Calle Bonifacio were dense and touched one another. I was surprised to see them shaking so violently, because I hadn’t heard any wind. I realized that I hadn’t heard it till that moment because I hadn’t thought about it. My attention had been focused on the murmurings of the rain, and I dismissed the muffled hissing that accompanied it. Suddenly I heard it, as if the stereo had been switched to a different station. And I heard it retrospectively, because I had been hearing it the whole time. The green mass of leaves was leaning toward my left, in the direction of Camacuá, and that, I noted under the threshold of thought, meant that the wind was blowing from the most dangerous angle, the one that impacted the window behind my armchair. As happens at moments of greatest alarm, a thousand images raced through my mind, including an inventory of the magazines I had been reading those last few days and that were piled next to my armchair.

Article continues below

I ran into the living room. In a way, I had already foreseen the worst, but I never could have foreseen everything. This was because of simultaneity. My mind got ahead of my eyes, my eyes got ahead of my mind, the two waited for each other so that they would coincide, making time go backwards. But time had already passed, and what I feared most had happened. The window was open, water had entered. I ran to close it and a few drops wet my arms.

On top of the glass end table that had been exposed to the rain was a pile of magazines, three or four. In the simultaneity, I remembered that the week before I had bought several magazines and had been skipping around, reading one then the other, one article in one, another in another. They were one Artforum, two Art in America, and one Burlington Magazine. I was truly passionate about these art magazines, which made me dream, stimulated me, inspired me. They were not easy to acquire in Buenos Aires. My very last purchase had included a lucky find after a long period of nothing, and it had been a breath of pure oxygen for my snobby lungs. My favorite was Artforum, to which I have been faithful for years, and recounting my adventures to acquire it would fill a book. It was my luxury, my fantasy. I was gripped by incommensurate anxiety when I lowered my eyes to assess the damage. I was sure, with that certainty about misfortune that rarely errs, that the Artforum had been on the top of the pile: unconsciously I always left it there, because the mere sight of its cover lifted my spirits.

To my great dismay, on top of the pile of magazines was a ball, a sphere the size of a soccer ball and brightly colored, whose layout I recognized without recognizing it. That ball had not existed in my house the day before. It was new. It could not have entered through the window, which had a screen. It had formed inside. This chain of reasoning paraded through my brain in a few tenths of a second, during which time I already knew what I was seeing, and I’d known it from the start but refused to believe it. The ball was the Artforum, its surface was the cover, in this issue showing the work of Robert Mangold. The same subliminal sight that had given me comfort for a week every time I was in the living room did a cruel somersault in my perceptions.

I touched it. With extreme caution, I picked it up. It was cold and wet to the touch, very heavy. It wasn’t dripping, despite being full of water. Though difficult for me to admit, the only explanation was that it had absorbed the rain until it had acquired that perfectly spherical shape. With reverential care, I placed it on the tea cart on the other side of the armchair. It was a marvelous object, almost supernatural. When I was finally able to tear my eyes away, I looked at the other magazines, and that’s when the true surprise set in.

They were dry, intact. Not a single drop had touched them. I confirmed this by picking them up and passing the palms of my hands over the covers and along the edges. I leaned over the glass of the table, and there wasn’t a trace of water there, either. Everything that had come through the window, then, had been absorbed by the Artforum, which hadn’t let the tiniest bit escape.

Article continues below

I sat down, overwhelmed by this evidence, and little by little tried to put my ideas in order. The first, as well as the last, was that the Artforum had sacrificed itself to save the other magazines, like a magical and heroic soldier stepping out in front of his platoon under a barrage of firepower and receiving all the bullets in his body without letting a single one hit his companions. But was that possible? The merely physical solutions had to be rejected. The paper Artforum is printed on is glossy, the least absorbent paper in the world. This didn’t mean that the water wouldn’t damage it, and the other magazines, also printed on that shiny paper, would also have been ruined. But how, then, was it able to restructure itself in order to be able to confiscate each and every drop of rain that entered the window? By making a decision, apparently. There was no need to turn to a category as grandiose as the supernatural. I had noticed that things sometimes acted in accordance with their own decisions, that they had whims, fantasies, cruelties, as well as tenderness and generosity. As for the perfectly round form it had taken, this could be explained by Artforum’s peculiar format, almost square.

The Artforum had sacrificed itself to save the other magazines, like a magical and heroic soldier stepping out in front of his platoon under a barrage of firepower.

The fact that this was the one that had sacrificed itself for the others must have been because it was on top of the pile. Any other in its position would have done the same thing. Or not? There was something very suggestive in the fact that the martyr was precisely my favorite magazine, the one that most inspired me, the one I spent the most effort finding and that was the most difficult to find. I would have sacrificed all the others for it, but it had sacrificed itself for the others, with that divine automatism things have.

I woke up from my reverie staring at the spherical Artforum, from which I had not moved my eyes. It was an inexpressibly beautiful object, even though I could no longer look through it or read it. Useless and unreadable, I loved it more than ever. I asked myself a strange question, justified only by the strangeness of the situation: did it love me? If the purpose of its sacrifice was to save the other magazines, and I was the owner and reader of those magazines, then it had placed more value on my happiness than on its own life, and objectively that seemed like love. (But how wrong it was! Because I loved it more than all the other magazines combined.)

Can an object love a man? The entire history of animism was contained in that question. But anthropologists who had tried to answer it had never had the opportunity, as I had, to pose it while face-to-face with an object that had offered the supreme proof of love. It was not as impossible as it seemed at first sight. Objects were carriers of information. All of them, from cathedrals to little balls of mercury, were inscribed with their histories, their properties, their user manuals. That they did this in a mute, sometimes enigmatic, language did not detract from their eloquence. You had only to decipher them. Objects called books (and more so, magazines) twice over carried out their condition as objects by being specialized carriers of information; they were super-objects, because in their infinite variety and novelty they could supplant all the other objects in imagination and desire.

That said, the quantum of information carried by objects was measured by the empty void of knowledge in the subject who confronted them, in other words, through their capacity to fill a hole that was preexisting and previously inhabited by desire. Love was very similar. The attraction of emptiness for fullness was occupied by an inevitable delay, because there was always a new plenitude, absent and remote. Perhaps all nostalgia and longing derived from this: the inadequacy of signs in the present. The periodicity of magazines was the scene of this drama.

Article continues below
Can an object love a man?

I speak from experience because none of this was new for me: it came from my childhood in Pringles. Those remote provincial towns were nothing if they weren’t austere. They were contaminated by the plains, from whose fertile soil came riches without objective and without objects. Maybe it’s an illusion, the same one felt by all young people who need to populate their lives. I felt it sharply on the intellectual level. Even though I had all the books I wanted, there was something else I could never hope to amass, because it was being produced in time: magazines, current magazines, illustrated magazines. In them I found an object that created a formidable absence, a void that sucked me dry and enhanced my capacity to read the world. In that empty town, everything became remote, and as the years passed my longing to leave grew.

I remembered a conversation I had with my father, one afternoon when we were alone in the large showroom of his shop, looking out at the deserted streets of the town. I must have been eleven or twelve. It had started to rain. I don’t know what he might have said, probably something about how timely the rain was. I wanted to make a defiant statement to assert my independence, and I said: “I couldn’t care less if it rains or not. It doesn’t matter to me.” “Yes it does,” he answered. “No. Not to me. Why should it matter to me?” “Because the harvest, whether it’s good or bad, depends on the rain, and my store does only as well as the farmers do . . .” My father sold parts for agricultural equipment, and he was involved in other ventures related to farming. “. . . And our economic situation will affect you.” He meant that everything was connected, even I, the least connected person in the world. For me it was a revelation, and not so much because the idea seemed new but rather precisely because I had al- ready thought that, more than once, but hearing it proved that others could also think it, which proved that everything was connected.

Perhaps the effect of that revelation was also due to the participation of rain. That distance where the magazines came from, that distance where the present existed, was subject to a thousand chances. Rain was intractable, capricious, as real as reality, in other words, like the wall desires and fantasies crashed up against. And it also came from far away, carried by the wind, which blew wherever it wanted. And when it rained, it became the present: everything was tied together in a great web of interconnectedness.

January 8, 1983


Article continues below

Excerpted from Artforum by César Aira, translated by Katherine Silver. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, New Directions.

More Story
Howard Friedman: How Much Are Our Lives Worth? The coronavirus pandemic is dramatically disrupting not only our daily lives but society itself. This show features conversations...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.