César Aira’s books often shrug off the shackles of genre, tradition, structure, or sense. They’re also often short. Usually around 100 pages, these novellas are complete in and of themselves. However, readers will most likely leave an Aira text in a completely different mental state than from the one they entered with—such is the challenge and the pleasure of reading him.
Aira’s latest book, Ema, the Captive (128 pages; New Directions; translated by Chris Andrews), is fairly straightforward in substance and story. A 19th-century Western set in Argentina is probably the most succinct way to describe it but to box this book into neatness would be dishonest to its intent. Aira goes to great lengths to paint a living portrait of a time and place replete with war, struggle, brutality, community, and hope. Yet that portrait questions the veracity of the history it presumes to be a part of. (In an author’s note included as a postscript, Aira refers to the book as a “historiola,” and claims to have been struck with the inspiration for it when translating long gothic novels while on vacation.) Irony aside, the novel has been steeped in a kind of mythic dye.
If it weren’t for the prologue in Zadie Smith’s new novel, Swing Time (464 pages; Penguin Press), a reader might be confounded by the many undulations the narrative takes as it kicks off in the present then looks back upon a past traumatic incident, excavating it. What could have been off-putting proves to be an adventure zig-zagging from public housing to brownstones, from England to Senegal, from 1982 to 2008, filling in the gaps in time and place and creating a definitive arc, albeit one completely warped.
Relationships, and the action that subsequently alters them, form the novel’s backbone, cementing the nonlinear action nicely. When we meet Tracey in the book’s opening, she’s another mixed-race girl whom the unnamed narrator has dance class with. Their friendship and fated falling out is the stuff of tragedy in the classical sense; our narrator muses, “there was always this mutual awareness, an invisible band strung between us, connecting us and preventing us from straying too deeply into relations with others.” Tracey is, indeed, the narrator’s sole object of obsession, one she returns to at varying points, often by way of other characters, illustrating their karmic inseparability—a lodestar by which she tracks her own success or failure. Tracey is the more talented of the pair, but her talent quickly dissipates when she falls prey to the socioeconomic odds stacked against her, eventually railing to bring the narrator down with her.
Communication, or a lack thereof, is front and center in A Greater Music, (128 pages; Open Letter Books; translated by Deborah Smith) Bae Suah’s latest novel to come out in English. Our music-loving narrator is an unnamed Korean woman living on and off in Berlin and Korea, struggling to learn German. Her difficulties in the structure and rigor of academia are documented throughout, up until she meets M, an unconventional tutor who teaches with wild disregard of basic grammar and syntax in favor of a higher learning and exchange of ideas. Presented near the novel’s conclusion is their initial meeting. M invites our narrator to read from a passage she does not comprehend. “Even if you can’t understand, you can still make me understand. Look at it that way,” M offers as a defense of her methodology, “and as time passes you’ll come to understand it too.”
Such is the philosophy explored at the core of this novel, and in doing so equates language-learning with music, the nuances of which are not directly translatable and more closely align with emotion. So it’s no shock when our narrator and M develop a romantic relationship whose vocabulary has yet to be determined to the reader. M has an alluded-to allergic condition that further complicates and strains their relationship, though other pertinent details are left out. While standing unarguably as the novel’s primary concern, M comes and goes as a memory whose legacy is a piece of a larger puzzle.