I Have Strayed From My Theme

César Aira
translated by Chris Andrews

Opposite our house was an accountant’s office where I would go when I had nothing else to do; I ran errands for the accountant and his clerk (who was his nephew). Since the clerk was often absent, the accountant used to leave me to look after the office when he went out. My sole function was to be there and, if anyone came, to say that the accountant had gone out and would be back soon. The clientele consisted of small farmers, for whom the accountant “did the books.” Their visits to town were rare; they usually had plenty of time on their hands, and a need to talk that had been building up in the solitude of the plains. I listened to those endless conversations with an inexhaustible avidity. They always seemed too short; I wanted more. Later, on my own, I reproduced them mentally, and even enriched them, giving them a new dimension of endlessness.

That was how I heard about the accelerating pace of change. Novelty glowed like a will-o’-the-wisp. My sources were country folk, uneducated and prone to lying, but that only made the whirlwind of History seem more marvelous. For example, there was talk of the new hybrids. Wheat could produce grains the size of chickpeas; the increase in take (as they called the yield colloquially) was amazing. Summer after summer, I followed the rise of the yields as if I had invested in them, calculating each farmer’s earnings. A yield of ten sacks per hectare would cover the costs; seventy sacks would make the lucky harvester rich. And now, suddenly, they were talking about seventy sacks as an absolute minimum; soon a single grain would be big enough to fill a sack. And the density of the grain was multiplied exponentially. Curiously, the number of sacks never exceeded seventy, I don’t know why, but there were other figures to take into account. I did the calculations mentally, memorized the results, then looked up the Chicago grain prices in La Nueva Provincia, did the multiplications, and was staggered by the gigantic results. An odd fact, which demolished all these castles in the air, was that the hybrid grains were utterly useless. That wheat was no good for making flour, or anything else. The increase in size and density was achieved at the cost of utility. So what was it all about? It seemed like an enormous sham. But of course I must have been getting it all wrong. My knowledge was derived from idle or mendacious chatter, and I couldn’t fit what I had heard into any kind of system; bits of information that had dropped haphazardly from bragging or hypocritical lips piled up haphazardly on the warped shelves of my fantasy.

The farmers were always lying; and when they didn’t lie, they exaggerated. They lied about themselves, and exaggerated about everyone else. One of their favorite pretexts for exaggeration was the extension of the electrical grid into rural areas. They were always telling stories about going back to their candle-lit farmhouses at night and seeing, far off in the pitch-black country darkness, some recently electrified ranch house. The Asteinza place, the Iturrioz place, the Domínguez place … Each time it was somewhere new, a dazzling sun in the middle of the night: houses, sheds, garden, even the stockyards … “Unbelievable! So beautiful! That’s progress!” If you could believe what they said, the woodlands were festooned with lights; the eucalyptuses had become Christmas trees.

There was a typewriter in the office. Since I spent many hours there alone, I was naturally tempted to give it a try. And I yielded repeatedly to that temptation. At first I did it in secret, then one day the accountant caught me at it and didn’t tell me off, so I went on doing it when he was there. I spent whole afternoons at the typewriter. I don’t know what I wrote: whatever. Once I asked the accountant: “Should you leave a space after a comma?” He thought about it. Then he bent over my shoulder to look, saw my comma, and noticed something else:

“Look! You don’t put a comma before and—never.”

That wasn’t what I’d asked, although he did have a point because I had put a comma before and. I hated it when things got mixed up; even at that age I had an organized mind, and I liked to keep everything clear and under control. This sequence of a comma and the word and was accidental. I tried to show that I was grateful for the tip, but returned to my initial question. He nodded and said he wasn’t sure; he’d never really focused on that detail. But there was a way to check. On a shelf, among the dossiers, he had an encyclopedia of accounting in three volumes. I remember those volumes well, because they were the first books I ever held; and although I often handled and even read them (without understanding a thing), I too had overlooked that detail, which the practice of writing had just brought to my notice.

He opened one of the volumes and looked … It was a random page from a volume chosen at random (each had about a thousand pages); he adjusted his gaze to the spatial relations of the written universe, and finally focused …

“Well, how about that? Here’s a comma right before and …”

Perhaps it was the only case in which the writers of the encyclopedia had departed from the rule, and he had chanced upon it. (In the previous sentence I have put a comma before and, correctly I believe, which goes to show that this “rule” is pretty shaky.)

That’s as much as I remember. But the rest is easy enough to reconstruct: we must have come to the conclusion that a space should be left after a comma, as after any other punctuation mark.

My friend Osvaldo Lamborghini once told me that he too, when learning to type as a boy, had discovered the space that follows punctuation marks. It seems to be something that you have to discover: it’s not taught at school, nor is it spontaneously perceived in the act of reading. For Osvaldo, it was decisive. Telling me about it, decades later, he was still moved by the memory, and he fixed me with those dark eyes of his, gazing through the cigarette smoke, to make sure that I had understood: that space, so subtle and refined, had won his undying loyalty. It showed him that writing, as well as having a communicative function, could also convey an elegance, and that, he realized, was where his destiny lay. He was always very sensitive to such things. A mutual friend used to say, “Osvaldo doesn’t have a style so much as a way of punctuating.” Which is why, ten years after his death, I wrote a little novel about the comma, in homage to him.

I have strayed from my theme, but not too far. One never really strays beyond the possibility of return. On one occasion, the big window right across the front of the accountant’s office was covered with a kind of white paint, which was used back then to stop people looking into stores and businesses. I seem to remember that this substance was known as “liquid chalk.” How odd. I don’t know why it fell out of use, but then I’m not really sure why it was necessary either, or why it had been used on that particular occasion. Although I do remember clearly what it was like. It was applied with a brush to the inside surface of the glass, covering it with a perfectly smooth white film. And you could write perfect letters on the chalked window with a fingertip; indeed the owners of the stores exploited this possibility to leave messages for their clients, such as: “Reopening soon,” or “Under new ownership,” or any other practical information that justified the infantile pleasure of writing on such an inviting surface. For children, the temptation was irresistible. Kids from the neighborhood used to visit when I was “on duty,” and naturally we couldn’t resist: we ended up covering the window with inscriptions. But there’s a trick to that writing: for it to be legible from outside, you have to write in reverse, back-to-front. The only way to do it is to use capitals, thinking carefully before you draw each letter, with a kind of double vision or ad hoc mental adjustment, and even so, you’re bound to end up with an R or an S the wrong way around. When the inscriptions consisted of more than one word, I noticed the importance of the space, which like so many other things took on real significance when considered in reverse. Later I discovered that in the early days of writing, in Greco-Roman antiquity, the space between letters didn’t exist. And it strikes me now, on reflection, that the invention of the space may have been as fundamentally important as the invention of zero in mathematics, and that the two may have been closely related.

I remember this banal episode of naughtiness because it was the only time the accountant got really cross with me, and even threatened to banish me from his office. In general, he was very tolerant, partly because of his character, partly because I was well behaved, and partly too no doubt because I was useful, and he must have felt guilty about exploiting me without any kind of recompense. On this occasion, though, he bawled me out: “Did you think I wouldn’t notice? … Writing all this without permission is bad enough … But prohibited words!” That was when I began to realize what it was about. It wasn’t simply the fact that we had written on the glass and spoiled its whiteness, but the specific words that we had put there; not the form, but the content. I hadn’t really thought about that. Absorbed by the challenge of writing backwards, I hadn’t stopped to consider the meanings, and now I understood: caught up in the excitement, the rush and the recklessness of the crime, we could have written all kinds of horrors. It wasn’t myself I was worried about—even my reflexes were sensible and repressed—but my friends, who were little savages. “They’ve written FUCK for sure,” I thought, and hung my head. The accountant fumed a bit longer and then forgot about it. And that was the end of the incident.

But the epilogue was still to come, a few hours later that afternoon (one of those interminable summer afternoons in Pringles). I was on my own in the office, waiting for the accountant to return; it was after his normal closing time. I was sitting on the high bench with my elbows resting on the counter and my fists pressed into my cheeks. My mind was a blank. I had succumbed to the vague, unmotivated melancholy of childhood, accentuated by the time of day and no doubt also by the fact that I was facing a window painted white, like a wall. Without being able to see the sky, I could sense that it was turning a phosphorescent pink. That’s what happens in the last hour of those glorious summer evenings in Pringles: the air is illuminated; its corpuscles shimmer. And then a word appeared, in fat pink letters on the dark wood of the counter, right in front of me, just where it would have been if I had written it: PERÓN. Hallucinatory, spellbinding, and real as could be, although it seemed impossible. I recoiled, blinking wildly. It was still there, written with a paintbrush dipped in light. Eventually I looked up and saw that the light on the counter was projected through one of the scribbles in the painting on the window. That was the prohibited word the accountant had been talking about. I was so inattentive I never would have noticed it among all the doodles and inscriptions covering the lower half of the whited glass. The sky had to reveal it to me, like a new MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN. A further source of amazement was awaiting me when the surprise receded and I recovered my powers of reason: the word was projected the right way around and not in reverse.

César Aira was born in Coronel Pringles, Argentina in 1949, and has lived in Buenos Aires since 1967. He taught at the University of Buenos Aires (about Copi and Rimbaud) and at the University of Rosario (Constructivism and Mallarmé), and has translated and edited books from France, England, Italy, Brazil, Spain, Mexico, and Venezuela. Perhaps one of the most prolific writers in Argentina, and certainly one of the most talked about in Latin America, Aira has published more than eighty books to date in Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Chile, and Spain, which have been translated for France, Great Britain, Italy, Brazil, Portugal, Greece, Austria, Romania, Russia, and now the United States. One novel, La Prueba, has been made into a feature film, and How I Became a Nun was chosen as one of Argentina’s ten best books. Besides essays and novels Aira writes regularly for the Spanish newspaper El País. In 1996 he received a Guggenheim scholarship, in 2002 he was short listed for the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.

Chris Andrews was born in Newcastle, Australia, in 1962. He studied at the University of Melbourne and taught there, in the French program, from 1995 to 2008. He is now teaching at the University of Western Sydney, where he is a member of the Writing and Society Research Center. As well as translating books by Roberto Bolaño and César Aira for New Directions, he has published a critical study (Poetry and Cosmogony: Science in the Writing of Queneau and Ponge, Rodopi, 1999) and a collection of poems (Cut Lunch, Indigo, 2002).

The Linden Tree is available April 24th from New Directions.