César Aira’s The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira is only 80 pages long, but, like many of his books, it reads with the intensity and fullness of a much longer novel. In it you’ll find an eccentric flaneur, an evil archenemy, a vicious guard dog, an ambulance that goes only in a straight line.
Dr. Aira, the main character, likes to wander the streets of a town called Pringles. That this happens to be the name of the author’s hometown in Argentina may or may not be significant. As he walks, he thinks up theoretical miracle cures to imagined illnesses.
He also has a nemesis: It’s the sinister Dr. Actyn, the chief of medicine at the local hospital, who is out to disprove Aira’s cures. He does this by laying traps — like pretending to be a sick man in an ambulance whom Aira must treat. But so far, all of Actyn’s efforts have been unsuccessful.
Aira, the author, not the doctor, is a practitioner of something I call spot philosophy. A thought occurs to him, and then he will build a philosophical structure around it: “Ninety-nine percent of the value of things,” he tells us, “is derived from time. A comb is useful only for combing your hair … but a 200-year-old comb is sold as a precious object.” It is this belief that the passage of time will only add value to his ideas that leads Aira the doctor to abandon practicing miracles, and instead to write and publish his complete works, no matter that it will take a thousand years to do so.
But while preparing himself for this time-defying project, Dr. Aira receives a call from the brothers of a very wealthy man who is terminally ill with cancer. He is quickly seduced by their entreaties and decides to perform a miracle after all. When he arrives he finds the bedroom aglow with lights, and there are two cameras set up strategically to film the cure.
Uncertain of what to do at first, Dr. Aira, master of last-minute thinking, comes up with the hypothesis that by excluding certain facts from the actual universe, he can create a parallel universe in which the man’s death does not occur. Using a series of plastic screens he works furiously by isolating those details that might conform to the old universe, everything from airplane flights the man might have taken to his sexual practices. “If just one airplane trip belonging to the Universe in which the patient was dying of cancer remained ‘inside,’ everything would be ruined; but it was better not to think about that. … ”
By the time he is done, the partitions have multiplied in every direction; the room has become a universe, not unlike that of a novel, where the patient’s death is no longer imminent. At that point he hears laughter. The cameras are turned off. The loudest cackle of all is coming from the bed, where the patient is sitting up. It is none other than Actyn, who has staged everything in order to catch Dr. Aira in the greatest blunder of all.
César Aira’s books often have an element of quirky absurdity, and this one is the same. It reads like a parable, but in the end there’s no moral teaching. Not much has happened, but you haven’t noticed. You’ve been too busy living in the hero’s mind. And it’s so wonderfully eccentric, the book is hard to put down.
So, who won in the end — Aira or Actyn? Neither. Really, it’s César Aira, the writer, who has the last, joyous word: “Laughter was justified; happiness needed no other motive.”
Pablo Medina is the author of Cubop City Blues. His review of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira first appeared on National Public Radio’s website. A shorter audio version also aired on “All Things Considered” on October 17, 2012. For more information, see: http://www.npr.org/2012/10/17/163009075/these-miracle-cures-are-absurd-and-delightful