The Seamstress and the Wind review: Comic mayhem at Argentina’s dark heart
César Aira’s fantastical nightmare is an elegy for the Disappeared, writes Eileen Battersby
César Aira: Should The Seamstress and the Wind bewilder you, so much the better
The Seamstress and the Wind
César Aira, translated by Rosalie Knecht
& Other Stories
Wow. A first reaction to this virtuosic confection is to delight in its cascade of images and the sheer craziness of a roller-coaster sequence of events that all seem so plausible. César Aira, an Argentine writer of fiction and literary criticism, is the obvious heir to Jorge Luis Borges. Along with a daring sense of fun, Aira has a playful imagination and the ability to spin a yarn as intricate as a spider’s web.
The fluid, compact narrative of The Seamstress and the Wind, which races along at cartoon speed, also has a curiously leisurely confidence thanks to the surefootedness of Rosalie Knecht’s translation, of which Aira, also a translator, approves. He has no apparent reluctance about injecting horror into the mix – and somehow sustains complete control. Should the reader feel bewildered, so much the better.
Argentina’s darker historical connection resonates throughout. At the centre of Aira’s comic mayhem – devised as a chase like no other, surpassing even Lewis Carroll, not to mention Roberto Bolaño – is a missing boy. No one can find him. He is gone without a trace. His loss sends his poor mother, the seamstress of the title, into a spiral of grief, before she promptly sets off in determined pursuit. The complications multiply, although some of the developments may not be real. Does it matter? Not really.
Aira, who was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize in 2015 – when it was still presented, Nobel style, to a body of work instead of, since last year’s revamp, to a single book – has published about 80 books, very few of which have been translated. A torrent is now forthcoming on the strength of this fantastical odyssey, which was first published in Spanish in 1994 and has enjoyed cult status for years. He is a writer of formidable cunning.
The Seamstress and the Wind is a most unusual lament for the disappeared, his countrymen and -women who vanished without a trace during the dirty war that devastated Argentina from about 1974 to 1983, leaving an unresolved legacy of sorrow and rage. Many of the victims were children.
Aira makes his point, and it is chilling in the way in which magic-realist narratives often tend to be. Considering the depth of the human tragedy, the humour may appear perverse, but that’s the objective. Much of the action unfolds with the manic surrealism of a nightmare – no doubt exactly what he intended.
It all begins with an admittedly preening display of authorial cleverness. “These last weeks, since before coming to Paris, I’ve been looking for a plot for the novel I want to write: a novel of successive adventures, full of anomalies and inventions.” All he has had to work with is the catchy title. Even so, the opening sequence is slightly unnecessary. Does Aira assume that readers wish to be privy to the musing that occurs before he gets down to writing the actual story?
As prologues go this one is a bit self-regarding until he announces: “We haven’t forgotten anything. Forgetting is simply a sensation.” It is a passing comment upon which he builds when reiterating: “Forgetting becomes simply a sensation. It drops the object, as in a disappearance. It’s our whole life, that object of the past, that falls into the antigravity updraughts of adventure.”
The Milan Kundera-like philosophising continues. It may irritate, but nothing is entirely random with Aira. “My first experience, the first of these events that leave a mark, was a disappearance.” By returning to the word “disappearance”, which he previously used merely as a by-the-way reference, he now gives it greater importance by recalling the day his friend Omar seemed to have used magic on him.
The narrator, César Aira, describes his own terror at having been banished by his playmate and reduced to helplessness. Omar’s game was to pretend César had gone into hiding and refused to come out. Yet it was Omar who disappeared.
The boy’s mother, Delia, is known both for the quality of her needlework and for an unfortunate habit of imposing her eccentric designs on her dwindling clientele. She is very quick, blessed with “supernatural velocity” – before anyone can dare utter an opinion a garment is finished and beyond further discussion.
At the time her boy goes missing she is working on a vast wedding dress for an art teacher, the lovely Silvia Balero, impressively pregnant and anxious to reclaim her respectability. She, too, is in a hurry. When the seamstress races off towards Patagonia, in an old taxi driven by the obliging, and doomed, Zaralegui, tracking Chiquito the friendly trucker who may have abducted the boy, Silvia follows in her little blue car.
Also in pursuit is Ramón, Omar’s father, in his old truck. Half-hearted by nature, Ramón has one passion, gambling.
The terrain flashes past; there are several references to the moon; Patagonia itself takes over. The southernmost point of South America, the world’s end, seems the ideal location for madness: “The full moon, exercising the entire attractive force of its mass over the landscape, draws the sleeping atoms out of the earth and makes them undulate in the air.”
Ramón joins in on a poker game, and the consequences are dire. Silvia loses her freedom and with it, her mind. She also changes colour. An unborn baby literally grabs at life, and embodies sinister portents as well as a host of symbolism.
All the while Delia, undeterred by disaster, battles on through a series of tests that culminate in a heroic effort to climb into the cab of an immense truck. She gets caught in the steering wheel.
Things happen, most of them unbelievable yet completely convincing. The wind plays a part, and even if the dress proves difficult to recover there is always Delia’s thimble.
Dazzling may well describe the proceedings, and the flamboyant Aira can certainly tell a story. Tragedy stalks the narrative, which seems to be saying that the human spirit is that bit bigger than death at its most squalid.
Even so, the most vivid impression is that of lazy old Ramón fashioning a car out of a giant armadillo’s shell. Yes, it is indeed that kind of a novel, zany and so very deliberate.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent. Her debut novel, Teethmarks on My Tongue, is published by Dalkey Archive Press