Reviewed by Alice Whitwham
Over the course of a single day in the year of 1923, a Panamanian civil servant, with no interest in poetry and having never written a word of verse in his life, returns home from work and composes a poem that becomes a landmark of the Latin American avant-garde. Such is the premise of Varamo, the most recent work by experimental Latin American novelist, César Aira. The rest of the novella is spent reconstructing—but at no point explaining—the events that lead up to this unfathomable burst of inspiration.
The latest English translation in Aira’s enormous corpus, Varamo accommodates his fondness for mixing metaphysics, realism, pulp fiction, and an attention to the raw strangeness of life’s ordinary details. One of the most prolific writers in Argentina, he has, since 1975, published over 70 books (turning them out at a rate of roughly two per year).
Common to Aira’s thematically various novellas is a principle of improvisation, or fuga hacia adelante (“fleeing forward”). A method of never returning to revise what he has already written, it involves following the logic of what’s on the page, at the same time as being unusually willing to incorporate whatever it is that might have intruded upon reality during the day, and even the time, of writing. Such a process might sound implausible—until you enter into Aira’s world.
In Varamo, the run-up to the creation of what will become “that celebrated masterpiece of Central American Poetry” (The Song of the Virgin Child), begins when the protagonist realizes that he has been paid his wage of two hundred pesos in counterfeit bills. This prompts a string of proliferating, seemingly unrelated occurrences, one of which, for example, is having to calm his senile mother when she receives a poison pen letter composed of “snippets” of “half-digested information,” which are strung together with the sole aim of producing “a poison pen effect.” The letter turns out to have been written on the paper receipt she lost the previous week, which Varamo had been looking for ever since. Varamo is led, eventually, to encounter some untrustworthy publisher-types who tutor him—using a common Panamanian myth about a scheme to poison the population with cans of frozen food—on how to write. He leaves inspired.
The eccentricity of plot here is its own pleasure, but the slow, carefully written digressions it enfolds are what make the work such extravagant fun. In one such digression, Varamo, who is a taxidermist as well as government employee, is at work on the project of embalming a fish playing a piano:
After having impregnated the fish with the contents of all his flasks, using every hole he could find and several others that he made specially (since the success of the operation depended on an effect, it seemed a pity not to try all the possible causes), and having twisted its body into an S-like shape, which was meant to represent the posture of a pianist seated at his instrument, some association of ideas prompted him to notice a detail that rather seriously undermined his project: fish don’t have arms, so they don’t have hands or fingers and can’t possibly play the piano, even as a joke. He was baffled and stunned.
Following the most immediate difficulty Varamo faces—inserting the appearance of life into a dead fish—Aira revels in playing out further restrictions of fancy: fish can’t be made to look “seated” because they are fish, and they can’t play the piano because they don’t have hands. “Grafting on a pair of little arms, the arms of a frog for example, would be horribly complicated.” What makes Aira’s description comical is the rigor with which he applies reality’s logic to scenes of such conspicuous make-believe. The result is a disjunction that is playful, and unrelentingly so.
Aira encounters his own story as Varamo stumbles upon his masterpiece. But a work about the creation of a fictional work gives him the opportunity to diagnose our expectations of literature, or literary realism, in general. In the middle of the novella, Aira straightforwardly admits that he is deducing—“in the most rigorous sense of the word”—Varamo’s activities on the day of the poem’s composition from a close reading of the poem itself, “which is the only document that has survived.” The idea proposed, then, that a work of literature can be translated “backwards, into the particle of reality from which it sprang,” is one that Varamo both performs, and lampoons. The “document” on which the poem is inscribed, the historical existence of the novel’s protagonist, that is, the raw material of story, are all we can ever be sure of, a point of departure. The rest, whatever driving emotion, chance occurrence, and intellectual impulse came together to enable a burst of creative inspiration, could have happened in any number of ways, and the novella only shows us the extent of all possible mutations—the moment’s essential unrepeatability. As Aira has said earlier on in this tirelessly unpredictable, oddly beautiful fantasia: “everything was possible, in a world about to take shape.”
New Directions, February 2012