Hardcover, 240 pages
Publisher: New Directions (March 2015)
Selected by Barbara Epler
“César is happily breaking all preconceptions of what a book can and should do. He makes me so happy, and his stories do too. That’s why I chose him.” —Barbara Epler
The work of César Aira was shortlisted for this year’s International Man Booker prize, and with good reason. The master of metafiction’s collection of short stories, The Musical Brain, has garnered effusive praise from critics and celebrities alike – Patti Smith describes the author as having “a cubist eye [that] sees from every angle”. Aira approaches fantastical situations with a matter-of-fact mindset; a new take on the bizarreness of reality. In The Musical Brain, one story leads into another. This is the first translation of his short stories into English by New Directions.
A cart from a supermarket in my neighbourhood was rolling along on its own, with no one pushing it. It was a cart just like all the others, made of thick wire, with four little rubber wheels (the front pair slightly closer together, which is what gives the vehicle its characteristic shape), and a bar coated with bright red plastic for steering it around. There was nothing to distinguish it from the 200 other carts that belonged to that enormous supermarket, the biggest and busiest in the neighbourhood. Except that the cart I’m referring to was the only one that moved on its own. It did this with infinite discretion: in the tumult that reigned on the premises from opening to closing time, to say nothing of the peak hours, its movement went unnoticed. It was used like all the other carts, filled with food, drink and cleaning products, unloaded at the cash registers, pushed hurriedly from one aisle to the next, and if the shoppers let it go and saw it roll a fraction of an inch, they assumed that it was being carried along by momentum.
The wonder was only perceptible at night, when the frenzy gave way to an uncanny calm, but there was no one to admire it. Very occasionally, the shelf stackers starting work at dawn would be surprised to find the cart astray down at the back, next to the deep-freeze cabinets, or between the dark shelves of wine. They naturally assumed that it had been left there by mistake the previous night. In such a large and labyrinthine establishment, oversights like that were only to be expected. If the cart was moving when they found it, and if they noticed the movement, which was as inconspicuous as the sweep of watch’s minute hand, they presumed that it must have been the result of a slope in the floor or a draft of air.
In fact, the cart had spent the whole night going round and round, up and down the aisles, slow and quiet as a star, without ever hesitating or coming to a stop. It did the rounds of its domain, mysterious, inexplicable, its miraculous essence concealed by the banal appearance of a shopping cart like any other. The employees and the customers were too busy to detect this secret phenomenon, which made no difference, after all, to anyone or anything. I was the only one to notice it, I think. Actually, I’m sure: attention is scarce among human beings, and a great deal of it was required in this case. I didn’t tell anyone, because it was too much like the sort of fantasies I’m always coming up with, which have earned me a reputation for craziness. Over many years of shopping there, I learned to recognize my special cart by a little mark on the red bar; except that I didn’t have to see the mark because even from a distance something told me that it was the one. A wave of joy and confidence swept through me each time I identified it. I thought of it as a kind of friend, a friendly object, perhaps because in this case the inertness of a thing had been leavened with that minimal tremor of life that is the starting point for all fantasies. Perhaps, in a corner of my subconscious, I was grateful to it for being different from all the other carts in the civilized world, and for having revealed that difference to me and no one else.
I liked to imagine it in the solitude and silence of midnight, rolling very slowly through the dimness, like a little boat full of holes setting off in search of adventure, knowledge, and (why not?) love. But what could it find in that array of dairy products, vegetables, noodles, soft drinks, and canned peas, which was all it knew of the world? Nevertheless, it didn’t lose hope, but resumed its navigations, or never interrupted them, like someone who knows that his efforts are futile but keeps trying all the same. Someone who keeps trying because he has pinned his hopes on the transformation of everyday banality into dream and portent. I think I identified with it, and that identification, I think, was how I discovered it in the first place. Paradoxically, for a writer who feels so distant and different from his colleagues, I felt close to that shopping cart. Even our respective techniques were similar: progressing by imperceptible increments, which add up to make a long journey; not looking too far ahead; urban themes.
Given all this, you can imagine my surprise when I heard it speak or, to be more precise, when I heard what it said. Its declaration was the last thing I was expecting to hear. Its words went through me like a spear of ice and forced me to reconsider the whole situation, beginning with the sympathy I felt for the cart, then the sympathy I felt for myself, and more generally my sympathy for miracles. I wasn’t surprised by the fact of it speaking; I had been expecting that. Perhaps I felt that our relationship had matured to the point where linguistic signs were appropriate. I knew that the moment had come for it to say something to me (for example that it admired me and loved me and was on my side). I bent down beside it, pretending to tie my shoelaces, so that I could put my ear to the wire mesh on its side, and then I was able to hear its voice, a whisper from the underside of the world, and yet the words were perfectly clear and distinct:
“I am Evil.”
March 17, 2004