cover image The Famous Magician

The Famous Magician

César Aira, trans. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. New Directions, $17.95 trade paper (48p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2889-3

A writer’s future hangs in the balance when he is tempted by an “unexpected Mephistopheles” in Aira’s playful, self-reflexive latest (after Artforum), an entry in New Directions’ Storybook series. César, a 60-something Buenos Aires author, is unwilling to write about the events of his own life, which is full of “painful scars” he wants to forget. After he encounters Ovando, a 40-ish bookseller and “scruffy hustler” with “intellectual pretensions,” César discovers a new interest in magic. Ovando claims he can “make the laws of physics do his bidding,” and proves it, transforming a sugar cube into gold before César’s eyes. César considers joining Ovando on a quest for further magical powers, but balks at the requirement that he give up literature, the “protean power of transformation” that has been his life’s work. César vacillates endlessly, only to discover that Ovando may in fact be hoping to use César’s talents for his own secret aims. Still, he’s a charming narrator, noting that all his “faults might have some benefits” and questioning whether the possibilities of literature and reality are competing or complementary. While Aira’s postmodern tropes are somewhat stale, the story’s driving question of choosing a meaningful course for one’s life is timeless. (Aug.)