In a short appreciation, published in 2004, Roberto Bolaño called the Argentinian novelist César Aira ‘one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today’. Yet he found much about Aira and his work uncertain or difficult to believe. Born in 1949, Aira grew up in a town called Coronel Pringles, ‘which must’, Bolaño supposed, ‘be a real place’. Although Bolaño had only been able to get hold of a few of Aira’s novels, he was ‘told that Aira writes two books a year’. (A recent count puts the total at nearly fifty novels.) Aira has certainly encouraged this sense of elusiveness, which is of a piece with his preoccupation with indirect forms of knowledge in his work. By publishing with ‘independent, almost clandestine’ presses, he told an interviewer, ‘it’s as if I were asking readers to search for the hidden item’.
For British readers, he has been still more elusive: a translation of The Hare, one of Aira’s novels, was published here in 1998, but nothing more followed until this year. The three very short novels in this slipcase edition from Penguin show Aira’s unusual range. The Literary Conference, written in