Varamo: Easily consumed, but stays with the reader long after

Purporting to be an investigation into how a celebrated avant-garde poem came into being, César Aira's intriguing novel is held together more by philosophical notions than by anything resembling a plot.

César Aira 
(translation by Chris Andrews)
New Directions
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In the strange world of Latin American belles-letters, it is not altogether inconceivable that a classic of the canon could be written overnight, by a lowly bureaucrat, and by accident. After all, one of the continent's most celebrated avant-garde poets, Cesar Vallejo, utilised automatic writing techniques and is considered by some to be utterly incomprehensible. Then there's the Mexican Juan Rulfo, perhaps that country's greatest novelist, who climbed out of obscurity as a travelling salesman long enough to write his only two books over the course of a two years, living another three decades but never publishing again. Seen in this light, we can almost believe the narrator of César Aira's recently translated novel Varamo when he tells us that he will reconstruct the events leading up to the improbable composition of the great avant-garde poem The Song of the Virgin Child, the only literary work of an otherwise unremarkable Panamanian paper-pusher named Varamo.

The book purports to be a quasi-scientific investigation into how this "bolt from the blue" came into being. Aira has developed a reputation for making screwball conceits like this into delightful 100-page novels and has written some 80 of them since the 1970s, frequently veering into questions surrounding philosophy, authorship, improvisation, originality and narrative. But for all the intellectual weight they carry, the books remain light as spider's silk, being fun, fast, tricky reads.

Aira is deadpan as ever in Varamo, telling us in a purposely stilted, pseudo-scientific tone that understanding the creation of Song of the Virgin Child is simply a matter of "lay[ing] out the events as they unfolded, one after another, in a causal sequence". This sounds simple enough, but Aira is surely being coy, knowing as well as anyone that nothing in life is that easy to explain, surely not the mysterious process behind a singular artistic achievement by a man who had never previously taken up a pen to write literature.

Curiously, Aira makes no attempts to consciously link Varamo or his life to questions of high art. Sure, he'll tell us all about the strange things Varamo witnesses over the course of the day, but their connection, if any, to literary creation is left unexamined. This raises intriguing questions: Does Aira's narrator know what the heck he's talking about? Just how seriously should we be taking all this? And can this strange little novel really tell us anything about how literature comes into being?

The action kicks off when our literary-giant-in-the-making is paid one month's salary in the form of two counterfeit bills. Varamo suffers much anxiety in figuring out how to change them, fails, and heads home where he lives with his mother. He then partakes in his hobby, embalming, where he is trying to create a scene with a fish playing a piano. Somehow his dissections bring the fish back to life, though Aira never attempts an explanation and Varamo seems not to care. Later he'll witness a "race" where the drivers try to stay as close to a marked speed as possible and will have a run-in with government high officials.

Perhaps it is because Aira stays so close to Varamo's daily routine that this is one of the most carefully observed of his novels. Due credit must be paid to the translator, Chris Andrews, for putting Aira's quietly comic locutions into a well-tended English that maintains the compactness and freshness of the original. Each element Aira draws our attention to is placed into sharp focus before being discussed in short, entertaining digressions. For instance, a "poison-pen" letter received by Varamo's mother is described as "a little too typical, as if the author had simply wanted to conform to the rules of the genre without having anything definite to say and had filled the letter with classic phrases, which seemed to have been strung together at random, with the sole aim of producing the 'poison-pen effect'."

In addition to demonstrating Aira's astute style, that poison-pen letter exemplifies something else: the strange logic by which Varamo functions. As his mother frets over the letter, Varamo discovers that it has been written on the back of their receipt for a mattress for which the family had been frantically searching. Varamo wryly observes, "Typical: they had turned the house upside down in their search, and now it appeared in this sinister form." Rather than make the logical leap that his mother, who is paranoid and in need of her son's attention, has herself penned the letter, Varamo reasons that the family's address on the receipt made it easy for the authors to deliver the letter - but this makes no sense: why would the authors of a denunciatory letter need their address from a receipt? Part of Varamo's strange appeal is how incidents like this almost make sense, forcing readers to supplement Aira's tenuous logic and constantly question what they're being told.

There is surely some connection between Varamo's continual recourse to this kind of improvisatory and Aira's repeated insistence throughout this book on the importance of causality. Without the notion of causality there would be no Varamo, for Aira tells us, "all the circumstantial details with which we have been colouring the story of the character's day and making it credible have been deduced (in the most rigorous sense of that word) from the poem that he finally wrote, which is the only document that has survived." In other words, all that exists any longer of Varamo or his life is his great poem The Song of the Virgin Child, and Aira's book is a reconstruction, via reverse-causality, of its creation.

Except that in this strange little book Aira goes to lengths to undercut this thesis that he, in other places, studiously upholds. The actual writing of the poem is a mechanical process - Varamo just copies out the contents of his pockets - meaning that any logical links between his day and the poem are purely accidental. Similarly, at many points in the novel Aira reminds us that cause and effect are human creations that are no more persuasive as explanations of reality than any number of other theories.

Varamo suggests that if cause and effect are not necessarily a part of reality, they are necessarily a part of fiction. But so is improvisation. During one of Aira's trademark philosophical digressions he muses on free indirect style, which is just another way of saying that sometimes novelists say what their characters are thinking. Varamo's narrator recognises that free indirect style should have no place in this book, which is "a work of literary history, not a fiction", but he justifies it in this instance because the book "is a historical reconstruction". In other words, it is the lie that tells the truth. What separates Varamo from countless other books making the same argument is that we know that Aira says this with great irony: there is no avant-garde Latin American poem titled The Song of the Virgin Child, and the so-called facts that the narrator purports to investigate are the absurd creations of an experimental novelist. Moreover, the narrator's insistence on the importance of cause and effect is belied by how wacky and disjointed the plot of Varamo really is. Taken ironically, the claim that free indirect style is justified in this supposedly historical document, that cause and effect are his means for reconstructing reality, become invitations to reconsider how narratives are put together and why they function. It is to look anew at their roles in our own lives.

Varamo is similar to many of Aira's best works in that it is held together more by motifs, philosophy, images, and its delightfully laconic narrative voice than by anything resembling a valid plot. If anything, the book implies a distrust of the very notion of plot, a comfort with play, and that is why I feel it grasps something of value. Once again Aira has given us a series of memorable, highly interpretable images held together by gossamer strings of meaning. The book is one of the best to have been translated so far, one of his most easily consumed and longest to digest.

Scott Esposito is the editor of The Quarterly Conversation.