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Festival & Game of the Worlds coverCésar Aira has written over a hundred books, but don’t call him prolific. His stories frequently clock in at under ninety pages, and he once claimed that all his life’s work would fit within three Stephen King novels. While that may be an exaggeration, a kind of mythology has built up around Aira, thanks to the constant stream of eclectic novellas he has produced since the 1980s—many published in ephemeral editions from tiny Argentine presses—and his own, sometimes contradictory, claims about his writing process.

Aira writes by hand in a constant “flight forward,” with little planning and no revision (except when, he admits, he might go back and revise a little). He says that his tastes are exclusively highbrow or lowbrow, never middlebrow. One non-exhaustive list of his influences included Shakespeare, Kafka, Ren and Stimpy, and Superman. Making his early career living as a translator of such writers as King, Raymond Chandler, and Brian Aldiss, Aira in his own fiction mixes autobiography with adventure, absurdism, and science fiction to produce an intriguing blend he alternately describes as “Dadaist fairy tales” and “literary toys for adults.”

Festival & Game of the Worlds is the latest of the roughly two dozen English-language translations of Aira published by New Directions, though prior reading is not required, as each stands alone. (The books’ English translation order bears no resemblance to original publication anyway.) Reminiscent of the old Ace Doubles, the book comprises two novellas, originally published separately in Spanish (Festival in 2011 and El juego de los mundos in 2000). This is the second English-language “double” of Aira’s work, following 2017’s The Little Buddhist Monk & The Proof, and the two novellas pair well: one is about a son and his mother, the other a father and his children; one is about presence, the other about absence; one is about science fiction, the other is science fiction. And both, of course, are about César Aira.

In Festival, Alec Steryx is a Belgian director of science fiction B-movies whose work has so enraptured Perla Sobietsky, the head of a foreign arthouse cinema, that she has invited him to be a guest of honor and award jury member at her city’s annual film festival. (The festival’s location is not given, though Aira has called it a version of Buenos Aires surrounded by mountains.) Yet Perla’s visions of erudite hobnobbing are dashed when the director arrives with his nonagenarian mother in tow and the whole festival is upended by this exhausted curmudgeon. It’s a comedy of errors in the truest sense, with incisive, laugh-out-loud lines lampooning the artistic establishment.

The setting feels like a more grounded version of Aira’s earlier novella The Literary Conference (published in Spanish in 1997 and English in 2010), in which a version of Aira plays writer, translator, and mad scientist, intent on a plan of global domination that revolves around cloning Mexican author Carlos Fuentes (there’s a gibe against the state of Latin American literature in there, but mostly it’s a story about buried treasure and giant worms). This isn’t surprising, given the common origins of both works—The Literary Conference derives from Aira’s experience at a literary conference and Festival from his experience on a film festival jury. This autoabsurdism is one of the most unifying elements of Aira’s work, and it is on full display in both novellas in this volume. In Festival, however, the ludicrous elements are all too human.

It is, in a way, an absurd act to critique Festival, as it is a work about the absurdity of criticism. The descriptions we get of Steryx’s films are fun but dubious: one is filmed entirely inside a hotel room and involves a space princess’s pet dog being rescued from a cardboard asteroid by a masked hero riding an atomic goose, while another is entitled Bulimia and Anorexia on the Planet of the Lizards. All are set in the year 40,000 CE and take place exactly 40,000 light years from Knokke, the Belgian city where Steryx was born.

The tension between the ambiguities of high and low art are played for laughs, as the festival regulars’ view of the films as postmodern artistic triumphs clashes with legions of teenage fans of a video game adaptation, who crash the film screenings and bring pop-culture merchandise and fanzines in their wake. This dynamic is particularly entertaining from a science fiction fan’s perspective, given the perennial stereotype of the literati that declare certain favored works “transcend genre.” (Though it’s not clear how much this actually happens these days: the battle won, we’re all Le Guinians now.)

Contested interpretations not only of the films themselves but of the criticism they inspire are frequent fodder for punchlines: one ironic sequence involves most of the festival agonizing over a hatchet job of a review while Perla later glows over how positive it was. This subjectivity not only of the interpretation of art but of the interpretation of the interpretation returns again and again to humorous effect, as when Perla gives a snide speech denouncing the low art of video games to the assembled “adolescent lowlives,” only for them to take her ironic comparison to cinema at face value and applaud, to her horror.

Despite their short page counts, many of Aira’s works are characterized by lengthy discussions of artistic or philosophical points, and Festival is no exception. Pages at a time pass without any action or dialogue as Aira, ostensibly in connection with some character’s viewpoint, discourses on postmodernism, genre, or the anxieties of municipal arts budgets. This would be tedious if he were not so entertaining. Fortunately, these sections are alternately hilarious and thought-provoking.

Almost as much time is spent on the adversities of Steryx’s mother as she shambles through the festival, insisting on accompanying him everywhere and hating every moment of it. We learn that this is unusual, the two having not seen each other in years. The question of why this is happening, then, hangs over the beleaguered festival organizers throughout the novella, complete with a narrative discourse on the value—and disappointment—of mere “presence” to those who feel they have nothing else left, and is only answered in the final pages, with quite a surprise.

Though the chapterless novella is filled with paragraphs as long as pages, Aira’s language (as translated by Katherine Silver) is clear and precise. For the most part, an intellectual, satirical tone prevails, which makes for enjoyable reading. However, perhaps as a product of Aira’s famed writing style—that daily “flight forward”—there are scenes where the tone shifts considerably, into the vivid and evocative. The most remarkable passage comes in the latter half of the story, when, at a critical moment for Perla, the baroque science fiction of Steryx’s films bursts into the language of the narrative. Her car speeds from the city center “like an electron expelled from its orbit,” until it arrives, “[spinning] insanely, not in a circle but in hyperbolic figure eights,” at an isolated abbey-cum-theater beset by “the gothic disease of its twisted facades,” where “strange characters glided around like ghosts” and sounds echo like “[f]ootsteps that were transmitted from one empty theater to another, the communication from a somnambulant life form that couldn’t stop: immobility would have killed it.”

In a story otherwise lacking anything resembling physical action, this sequence, taking up about two pages, stands out. The effect of the films on Perla’s perceptions is noted in the text, with the observation that science fiction adventures had “gelatinously materialized inside of her.” This leads into Perla’s thoughts on the disputed newspaper review, which is one of the funniest passages in the novella. However, the vivid clarity of Perla’s self-reflection cuts into the predominant satirical tone and keeps the narrative psychologically grounded—it makes the genuine emotional reaction to Steryx’s art believable. This confluence of perspective, theme, and language is Aira at his best.

The second novella in the volume, Game of the Worlds, promisingly subtitled A Science Fiction Book, would fit right in with the far-flung imaginings of Alec Steryx. Taking place in an ambiguous future eight or nine thousand millennia after city buses cease to exist—one of several questionable temporal estimates—the novella follows a nameless, middle-aged narrator as he fails to parent his gaggle of “spermatic children” (meaning he is both their mother and father).

The titular game involves the children utilizing “Total Reality” technology to travel to worlds populated by alien civilizations. The descriptions of these bring forth Aira’s latent lyricism:

On this occasion they’d come across a tiny planet, a globule of liquid substances, mother of pearl, and configurations of sheathings, iridescent and crisscrossed by a variety of temporal velocities, the fruits of an unknown science. Its inhabitants were weightless beings who rode on these velocities, like ecstatic sleepwalkers. [...] Everything about them was organic; they had no objects. All the useful and useless treasures they had accumulated over eons of evolution were carried in their translucent butterfly-wing bodies.

The children proceed to commit genocide, slaughtering this world by inverting the forces of life and death, so that those weightless beings “vanished, as if they had never existed.” The nature of “Total Reality” is never firmly established, but neither is the nature of the narrator’s reality, except we are given to understand that the two are equivalent.

It’s an Iain Banks concept with an Aira treatment. The narrator remarks upon the casual cruelty of the game in muted tones, thinking on how countless worlds had become disposable fodder for the entertainment industry. He offers up some half-hearted arguments for why his children shouldn’t be doing this, but quickly drops them when they energetically defend themselves by pointing out that, since there are so many populated worlds, they could not possibly destroy enough to make a real difference. This theme of “banality and barbarity” will be familiar to any readers of Aira’s last English-language publication, Fulgentius (2023), in which a Roman general orders mass murders in little asides between the true drama of putting on the autobiographical play he wrote as a child. Here, as there, Aira seems to say that atrocity is so baked into our world, it is difficult to truly remark on.

The children (always treated as a collective) indeed recede into the background, and the rest of the novella pivots to the narrator’s real concern about the Game of the Worlds: that it might be priming humanity for the return of the idea of God, which had died thousands of centuries before. This arises from the observation that the game encourages a view of some persons being active and supreme over others, which fuels his fear that, if God returned (God literally returning is used interchangeably with the idea of God returning), humanity would be dispossessed and thrust into a state of horror—similar, one imagines, to the state of horror it is inflicting upon others. It is an imperialist anxiety of the highest order.

Throughout the narrative, various unexplained technologies are encountered, under the broad grouping of “Intelligent Systems.” The narrator interacts with a Programmer and a Deprogrammer, both Intelligent Systems in the city center (which is also the planet center, in this inverted world). He has a date at the Wondrous Beaches, a kind of programmable reality emulating seaside leisure. And he despairs of debating his children or anyone else adept at using the Discourse Corrector, a system which can skip through time to change your speech earlier in the conversation until it reaches its optimal form. (This latter is probably what the marketing materials peg as “a dead ringer for ChatGPT,” which would be fair, except that instead of transmuting fresh water and coal into uninspired plagiarism, this fictional device seems to actually work.)

Humanity’s reliance on these obsessive technologies is linked to the popularity of the Game of the Worlds. The Intelligent Systems have done away with humanity’s need for imagination—and without imagination there is nothing to do but make war. The entirety of the Total Reality system in which they now live derives from “humanity’s perennial longing to impose themselves on others.” The juxtaposition between the care with which Aira explores an individual psyche and the speed with which he consigns the species to the condition of monstrosity imbues the story with an incredibly human contradiction, making it all the more resonant.

Game of the Worlds flies by in short chapters, often only a few pages each. Despite this structure, or perhaps in complement to it, Aira’s language expands to fill a universe of his own making, playfully dancing through the science of a philosophical reality. Time and perspective are frequent toys here, and Aira’s narrator reminds the reader that he is, in fact, in their future, with characteristic style: Since all of this happened in the very distant future, I would like to offer certain explanations for a possible reader from the past.”

It would not be an Aira book without some commentary on the nature of art. The narrator relates an old wives’ tale which claims that, in the distant past, the world was inhabited by a race called Science Fiction Writers. These beings predicted all possible futures of all possible worlds, and they were, it is well known, universally wrong. Indeed, it was the writers who originally killed God—synthesized by the Intelligent Systems at some point in this future’s past—by so badgering him with narcissistic questions about the immortality of their work that he short-circuited in a universe-wide explosion that also drove Writers into extinction. These sequences are hilarious, but beyond that Aira’s self-mockery takes the edge off what he has to say about the rest of us: he’s laughing at himself more than anyone.

One flaw holds this novella back from being perhaps Aira’s greatest work translated into English yet: the ending. The narrator’s search for answers brings him to a psychic inversion, in which all his preconceptions are turned upside down. It seems the moment on which the narrative should pivot, and yet it is where it ends. Abrupt or mystifying endings are par for the course with Aira, but while the delightful absurdity of Festival is crystalized by its ending, Game of the Worlds is let down by its own. A fuller confrontation with the idea of God seems precisely the outrageous result to which Aira’s talents would be best directed, so the ending as it stands, though arriving at something of an epiphany, seems a missed opportunity. It isn’t enough to spoil the novella—which remains excellent—but constitutes its sole disappointment.

All art reflects something of the artist, but this is uncommonly true for Aira, who is the protagonist of nearly all his writing. The nameless narrator of Game of the Worlds is César Aira, and Alec Steryx surely is César Aira. This would be clear even if Aira did not openly admit that Festival is based on his own experience of sitting on a film festival jury and that Steryx’s mother is based upon his own. The director occupies a superposition between the genre and the cultured: despite his fame, he releases his movies only through minor companies (Aira’s small presses); and in his work, he produces “disjointed sequences of bewildering nonsense” that are nevertheless compelling. The nameless narrator of Game of the Worlds, meanwhile, is possessed by anxieties of his own lack of understanding, which could be pulled straight from Aira’s autobiographical Birthday, originally published in the same year. This strand of self-reflection renders as collage even the most bizarre elements of these novellas. What emerges is a picture of an artist deeply concerned with how he relates to the world—the world of art, of family, of metaphysics—and one who knows that sometimes, when the world laughs at you, you have to laugh back.

Taken together, Festival & Game of the Worlds serves as both a gift for the loyal Aira fan and a strong entry point for those just discovering the Argentine absurdist. One should not read Aira because he is exemplary of a given national or international tradition—he is not—but because, decades on, his nigh endless battery of whimsical novellas continues to delight.

Will McMahon is a union organizer and writer living in Upstate New York. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in F&SFLightspeedBeneath Ceaseless Skies, and others, while his literary criticism has appeared in the Ancillary Review of Books. He can be found at
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