Varamo by César Aira (2002) translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (2012) New Directions (2012) 89 pp
I love it when we get something by César Aira newly translated into English. There simply is no way to predict what it is going to be about (often even when you’re three-quarters of the way through the book), but you’re guaranteed a strange ride through beautifully strangeness. My first venture with Aira was with a landscape painter through Argentina in the 19th century. I’ve been with him in a the skeleton of a haunted condominium that is being constructed, on a trek to clone Carlos Fuentes, to a sunlit ice cream parlor where the strawberry ice cream contains arsenic, on a windy trip to Patagonia. In Varamo, Aira takes us to Colón, Panama, in 1923, where we go through a rather eventful night with a lowly government clerk named Varamo.
I think it’s worth relating an anecdote here. I began reading this book one night just before going to sleep. I was very tired and soon I was reading the same sentence over and over though my mind seemed to keep the story going forward. Eventually I woke myself up enough to put the book down. The next morning I couldn’t help but chuckle about where my mind had drifted the night before: some taxidermist executing his plan to pose a fish playing a piano, only quite a ways into the project realizing that fish anatomy doesn’t suit playing a piano. What a bizarre dream, I thought. Of course, the development felt just like a dream; here I had some strange idea that went on for a while before I realized that anatomical flaw and finally moved on. But at breakfast the next morning, a thought: this is Aira. I might not have been dreaming.
You already know, of course, that I wasn’t dreaming. Such is the joy (a part of the joy, that is) of the work of Aira.
So what is this book?
It begins at the end of a workday when Varamo stops to pick up his salary from the government.
In the interval between that moment and the dawn of the following day, ten or twelve hours later, he completed the composition of a long poem, from the initial decision to write it up to the final period, after which there were no further additions or corrections.
The poem, The Song of the Virgin Child, is declared a masterpiece of modern Central American poetry. It’s the only thing fifty-year-old Varamo had ever written, and he never wrote again. There was just something about that night after picking up his paycheck: “The action contained the inspiration, and vice versa, each nourishing and consuming the other, so that nothing was left over.”
The book Varamo is, from one perspective, a venture through that night seeking what created the poem. Though, playfully, the way we find out what happened is by deducing, “in the most rigorous sense of that word,” from the poem. Aira is playing here, once again, with the creative act in the writing process.
Picking up his salary ushers in a frenzied night of creativity. There is a reason, and it’s one of the fun parts of the book. When Varamo picks up his money, he immediately realizes that it is counterfeit. He cannot, therefore, go out and use the money. On the other hand, he cannot charge the government with giving him counterfeit money. It’s not long after this that we enter a new episode (the one I thought I was dreaming) when we see Varamo engaged in his taxidermy. And the night goes on.
As with his other works (particularly How I Became a Nun and The Seamstress and the Wind), the story plays out in a series of episodes, and the thread holding them together is sometimes rather flimsy, even if that doesn’t matter. It also doesn’t matter that we get seemingly important (or completely insignificant) facts rather late in the book. For example, we get this at about the half-way point, causing us to rethink our mental image of Varamo:
His mother was Chinese; he was Chinese; therefore he had to be her son; there could be no doubt about it. The conclusion was irresistible in Panama, for overwhelming demographic reasons.
Varamo is a strange book, and I do think it better for readers new to Aira to start with An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter or Ghosts (two that I think have a lot more substance to them than the rest, which are brilliant mediations on form and style, with excellent episodes, but which, for me, are not as fulfilling). One has to just let Aira go and trust that in the end it will be quite an experience, even if it’s hard to make sense of.
I also think it pays to know a bit about Aira’s creative process, which is a frequent theme in his books. For example, I think some may be disappointed that Varamo’s poem itself is hardly discussed in the book, though it is the whole reason we care about Varamo’s life at all (Aira is always brings something up and then drops it). We don’t read a line of The Song of the Virgin Child. Because we never really discuss the poem itself, it feels like a mere plot device, which can be frustrating. That said, the poem also the device that allows Aira to discuss some of his ideas about the creative act in the writing process, and, in particular, how to achieve “immediacy,” which, as Varamo is told, “is the key to good style.” (Immediacy is one thing Aira always achieves in his books.) Varamo is a great look at the mixture of form and substance and the life that creates each.