César Aira’s Dinner is a delightfully strange, genre bending novella narrated by a bachelor in his sixties who lives in the Argentinean town of Pringles. We don’t know the details of what’s gone wrong in this man’s life, but he’s bankrupt, washed up and living with his elderly mother–a very undignified position to find oneself in at any age, but the narrator, with old age looming, cannot kid himself that life will ever improve.
I was dead broke, they’d repossessed my house and my car, I’d taken refuge in my mother’s apartment and was living off her retirement income (if you can call that living.)
The narrator and his mother spend an evening with an eccentric friend–a wealthy building contractor who owns a splendid large home which is stuffed full of bizarre, expensive collections. The narrator has sought this invitation as he hopes to hit up his last friend, a self-made man, for a business loan. While the host shows off his fantastic automatons, the conversation veers towards various residents of the town. For the host and for the narrator’s mother, it’s all about names, “the conformations and genealogies of all the town’s families.” And as the evening progresses “each name was a knot of meaning wherein converged many other chains of names.” These are discussions which do not interest the narrator. While he has “real memories, full-fledged memories,” there are also “inexplicable memories” from his childhood. The narrator’s memories don’t quite mesh with the memories of his mother, and while his mother jumps from memory to memory by the use of names, the narrator notes that for him, there are “pits” in his memories which symbolize ” ‘holes’ in memory.”
The shifting nature of memory then morphs into a question of what is true and what isn’t. When the narrator and his mother return home, the conversation shifts to their host. The narrator sees their host as a wealthy man, but the mother argues, vehemently and with detail, about massive debt & failure. Soon the narrator begins to doubt the affluent version of his friend’s life.
Alone, and only with the television for company, the narrator channel surfs and finds himself spellbound over a programme on the Pringles channel in which news reporter Maria Rosa zooms around on her scooter tracking the nightlife of Pringles. The programme is supposed to seem, “improvised, informal, youthful,” but with a cameraman in pursuit of the intrepid Maria Rosa, instead each episode is amateurish and almost laughable. But the narrator finds himself glued to the set as Maria Rosa takes her scooter to the cemetery to confirm the story that “the dead were rising from their graves.”
At this point, the story shifts completely from the narrator watching the programme to the assault on Pringles from the Dead who exit their graves, descend upon the town and, in the pursuit of endorphins, suck the brains from the living….
Is this a nightmare brought on by the evening’s discussion of “pits” and the cemetery? Did the Dead rise and kill many of the inhabitants of Pringles or is the event a publicity stunt? Or is the event about something bigger–symbolic of memory, the truth and “representation“? You decide.
César Aira’s prose is poetic, smooth, and slides like honey. This is how the book begins:
My friend was home alone, but he invited us over for dinner anyway; he was a very sociable man, liked to talk and tell stories, though he wasn’t any good at it; he got the episodes mixed up, left effects without causes and causes without effects, skipped over important parts, and dropped anecdotes right in the middle. This didn’t bother my mother, who at her age had reached a level of mental confusion equivalent to what my friend had been born with; I think she didn’t even notice. In fact, she was the one who most enjoyed the conversation–and it was the only thing she enjoyed that evening–because there was a constant mention of the name’s of the town’s families, magic words that distilled her entire interest in life. I listened to the names drop, as one listens to the falling rain, whereas for her, each was a treasure full of meanings and memories.
The dinner is an elegant occasion, leisurely in nature, with the host proudly showing his guests some delightful, intricate, miniature automatons. But the evening is a contrived event–a representation of the subtle unspoken politics of class, wealth and business acumen. While the evening appears to be composed of two old friends reconnecting over dinner, it’s an occasion in which the narrator cannot help but compare his failure to his friend’s phenomenal success. Perhaps this partially explains the narrator’s mother’s irritation. The narrator sees that his mother, who loves him, is in “complete denial” of the facts. “And her life was reduced to that denial; I had reduced her to that.”
Perhaps she sees the host displaying his expensive toys as more than the actions of an enthusiastic collector:
Her idée fixe was that I was not a failure, that I had no reason to be dissatisfied with my life, that I could be happy, and that in fact I was. According to her, I had always done the right thing, and I continued to do so; I was an exemplary man, a role model, and moreover, I was young, good-looking, and intelligent. The objective facts contradicted her categorically: I was approaching sixty; I was fat, wrinkled, stooped; I was alone. without any family (except her), money, work, or future. Mama overcame this discrepancy by closing her eyes to reality, and since this didn’t suffice, she blamed the rest on humanity.
Automatons, zombies, representations, perceived wealth and failure, slippery truths and memory holes–all very clever ways of asking that age-old question: what is truth and what is reality?
Translated by Katherine Silver