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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Literary Conference

César Aira

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To purchase The Literary Conference

Title: The Literary Conference
Author: César Aira
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 85 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Literary Conference - US
El congreso de literatura - US
in Three Novels - UK
The Literary Conference - Canada
The Literary Conference - India
Le congrès de littérature - France
Der Literaturkongress - Deutschland
El congreso de literatura - España
  • Spanish title: El congreso de literatura
  • Translated by Katherine Silver

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Our Assessment:

B+ : appealingly bizarre

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Clarín . 4/4/1999 Arturo Carrera
The Guardian . 24/7/2015 Jane Housham
La Nación . 10/3/1999 Luis Chitarroni
The National . 13/5/2010 Scott Esposito
The NY Rev. of Books . 13/1/2011 Michael Greenberg
The New Yorker . 7/6/2010 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Traducciones que dejan imaginar la literatura como una fábrica perpetua de traducciones. Para Aira, parece que no fueran otra cosa que un indiferente secreto. Algo así como el secreto de la vida misma, cuya fórmula, vuelvo a conjeturarlo, parece ser la inconstante mezcla, pero el matiz justo, alcanzado, de realidad e irrealidad." - Arturo Carrera, Clarín

  • "The Literary Conference, while not Aira’s most well-crafted work, still makes for an extremely enjoyable, densely layered read, a sort of rectilinear corridor that continually tempts you to keep running down it. The second half of the novel -- which features a madcap, absurdist dénouement to Aira’s batty premise -- doesn’t quite live up to the satisfying tension and knife’s-edge balance of the opening, but it continues to entertain, and its aphoristic sentences are chiselled with clarity and concision." - Scott Esposito, The National

  • "Aira’s writerly self-reference, while hardly subtle, is disarming, and the result is amusing, self-conscious camp." - The New Yorker

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Literary Conference is a mere eighty-five pages long, but Aira packs a lot into that. The narrator, César, does attend a literary conference, but there's considerably more to the story than that. Any of a number of the plotlines -- say, his ambition to clone writer Carlos Fuentes (which he comes close to managing, but which does not work out quite as planned) -- would be enough to sustain the story, but Aira stacks up (and connects) quite a few very disparate layers.
       The narrator is a translator (and, on the side, a scientific experimentalist), and the novella offers a series of "translations" -- a concept he also puts in quotation marks when he refers to it regarding his account. He doesn't mean conventional translations, from one language to another, of the sort he earns his living with, but rather much more fundamental shifts in narrative and action more akin to Kuhnian paradigm shifts. So, for example, he announces:

     The moment has come, I believe, to do another "translation" of the story I am telling in order to make clear my real intentions. My Great Work is secret, clandestine, and encompasses my life in its entirety, even in its most insignificant folds and those that seem the most banal. Until now I have concealed my purpose under the accommodating guise of literature. Because I am a writer, this causes no particular concern.
       (In this written version it is, of course, still in: "the accommodating guise of literature" -- one of the many games Aira is playing at.)
       The narrator's ambitions are very great indeed -- nothing less than extending his: "dominion over the entire world". And, of course, the means to that end is ... cloning Carlos Fuentes.
       Along the way -- or rather, at the start -- César happens to strike it rich by solving a century-old enigma (thanks, he explains, to those particular unique powers and characteristics he has ("Each person possesses a mind with powers that are, whether great or small, always unique, powers that belong to them and to them alone"), and the circumstances). The new-found wealth (and attendant fame) bring advantages with them, but it's just another incidental part of this much-"translated" story; so too is the performance of one of his plays at the local airport.
       César describes himself as mentally super-active, and this account does seem the product of such an overworking mind. He describes himself as a 'Mad Scientist' of sorts, too; and he is a creator-author, with a lot in his mind. Ultimately, here:
     The strangeness that made everything sparkle came from me. Worlds rose out of my bottomless perplexity.
       Worlds indeed .....
       What's particularly striking about The Literary Conference is the relatively matter-of-fact tone and straightforward narration. César's account is precise and conventional, the events he describes often downright mundane. Yet the novella is full of the fantastical, inserting the very unusual (that Fuentes-cloning experiment goes really, really wrong, for one thing) in the very everyday.
       The Literary Conference constantly keeps the reader guessing: Aira leads down one path, only to radically upset his premises and change route (or, arguably, to take things to their logical conclusion -- though it's not a readily recognizable and familiar logic ...), while almost all the while maintaining his straightforward tone.
       The Literary Conference is one of those books that truly is unlike anything most readers are likely to have encountered (even if they've read a few other works by Aira). César makes a point of emphasizing uniqueness; The Literary Conference certainly stands out among most works of fiction, its mix of convention and peculiarity particularly striking.
       Good but very, very strange fun.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 February 2010

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The Literary Conference: Reviews: César Aira: Other books by César Aira under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Argentinian author César Aira was born in 1949.

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