In May 2011, with And Other Stories’ first books on the way (including two Argentine titles, Iosi Havilio’s Open Door and Carlos Gamerro’s The Islands), I was invited to Buenos Aires to find out more about Argentine lit. Far away from the official programme, I was lucky enough to have an editor tip me off to a very Argentine literature scene. It was happening in bookshops, bars and the beauty was on the warm streets. One evening I sat drinking red wine from plastic cups at the small bookshop La Internacional Argentina. Not much was being sold, which was conducive to talking. There was the poet Arturo Carrera, a close friend of César Aira’s, and the bookshop’s owner, Francisco Garamona, who is also one of Aira’s main publishers via his press Mansalva. His partner, Fernanda Laguna, a great writer and artist, popped in briefly. Another night (maybe before the bookshop visit, actually) there was an event with bands and readings from a temporary stage on a street. There I met the writer Cecilia Pavón, who with Laguna had created the influential DIY art/lit space/gallery/publisher Belleza y Felicidad. Cecilia was kind enough to introduce me by email to César Aira, whose writing I already hoped to publish. Aira suggested we meet in San Telmo, in a café on the corner between Perú and México (two streets). He arrived on his push bike. We had a coffee and went for a stroll. In true Aira fashion, mixing up pop and the canon, he showed me a public statue of Mafalda, an Argentine comic-strip character, while talking about English nineteenth-century writers he was enjoying reading just then, like Thackeray. He took his leave, saying ‘Now you’ll see the Argentine writer ride away on his bicycle.’ (How was that done exactly? With a magician’s flourish?, which also had something of the mockumentary? His bike riding, I can report, was satisfactory, even satisfying to watch, if unexceptional.)

As is perhaps fitting with Aira, master of a meandering tale, our road to publishing him was not direct. A single title of Aira’s had been published in the UK a good fifteen years before by Serpent’s Tail. (The Hare, translated by Nick Caistor, who had lived in Buenos Aires and knows his Latin American literature like few others. He later translated Aira’s The Proof for us, a novel inspired partly, I heard, by Aira’s meeting with the Belleza y Felicidad duo.) Almost ten years after that, New Directions had started to publish Aira in the US. But there were no UK editions.

In the spring of 2012 I met Aira’s agent at the London Book Fair and over the following months we finalised plans to publish Aira and were about to sign. Then, suddenly, August 2012, the agent informed me that Penguin’s imprint Hamish Hamilton had bought three titles and we’d have to put our plans on hold. I guess when Penguin comes knocking, it’s hard to say no. However, editor Simon Prosser stopped publishing Aira after one book, so we got a chance: in 2016 we published the time-bending, Whacky Races-like dash to Patagonia that is The Seamstress and the Wind and in the next few years published five more: Birthday is a key to his ars poetica, The Lime Tree is a gentler, more memoiristic tale set in his childhood town of Colonel Pringles, The Divorce is a masterpiece of imagination and mayhem, The Proof is a splatterpunk ode to love and The Little Buddhist Monk plays with comic-book tropes and stereotypes of the Far East (Aira’s wife is Liliana Ponce, a poet and a scholar of Japanese literature).

Six books. Not much by Aira’s prodigious output, but it is more than we’ve published of any other of our authors. (Not to forget the essay by Aira on Lange that we included in our edition of Norah Lange’s People in the Room.) And yet, in spite of being an International Booker finalist and garnering some fantastic coverage and author endorsements (Patti Smith no less), he remains a rather undiscovered author in the UK. Where are all the readers who would love the rush of his flights of fancy? We haven’t published any further Aira titles lately because, to be honest, as we can see from the sales, UK readers still have some catching up to do with the six we have published. (And we have a small list and there’s simply no way to be a completist when your author has over 100 published novels and about 40 more manuscripts on his shelves.) That said, I totally tip my hat to his absurdist rebellion against the economic crises in Argentina. Publishing isn’t a business? OK, then no need to worry about stoking demand through scarcity! Abundant creation as revolt against the market. Independent presses are his playground, he’s said: ‘En la Argentina han proliferado estos últimos años muchísimas editoriales independientes que son mi terreno de juego, mi playground favorito.’

And what a delight to watch him play. Famously, he doesn’t edit his writing much, if at all, so I have rarely asked him editorial questions. Yet when we came to publish The Lime Tree, I did wonder why the tree in this apparently fairly realistically written, apparently autobiographical novel was so conspicuously small, when lime trees are so big. (For North American readers, that’s the linden tree, we’re not talking about the citrus tree. You’ll notice that the New Directions’ edition is The Linden Tree.) His reply?: ‘Yes the lime tree is generally a big tree (I have one in front of my house in Buenos Aires), I don’t remember why I said it is small. I am not to be taken seriously in SO many things.’

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