Varamo by César Aira (trans. Chris Andrews). New Directions, 96 pp. $12.95.
The sixth of César Aira’s eighty-odd brief books to appear in English translation, Varamo takes the form of a parable, or an extended joke, on the nature of writing. The setup is a riddle: one night in 1923 the title character, a Panamanian civil servant, conceives and writes what will become a canonical poem of the Latin American avant-garde, though he has never before shown any literary inclination or talent. The narrative purports to give a historical account of the hours leading up to the poem’s creation. No particular attempt is made to maintain the historical disguise, which by the middle of the book has warped into the deadpan assertion that every detail of the narrative, “down to the subatomic level and beyond,” has been rigorously deduced from the text of the poem alone. The result is a novel that, despite its own claims to avant-gardism, goes after familiar game: the relations between art and artist, production and reception, the made or found artifact and the attendant circumstances of life.
Like other Southern Cone writers of his generation—Roberto Bolaño, Ricardo Piglia—Aira is a bookish late modernist who rejects the nation-building monuments of the Boom for a more marginal, allusive mode. But in place of Bolaño’s Romanticism, with its melancholy artist-heroes and demonic artist-villains, Aira deploys the anti-Romantic strategies of Dada. Varamo is dismissive of artworks as self-contained entities; its half-parodic project is to empty out the distinction between art and life. Aira has said that he finds books less interesting than their authors, and that he takes individual pieces as secondary to the writer’s vida-obra, the work of the life. He has also said that he considers himself an artist who only happens to work in prose. His slim books tend to not quite hold up as independent entities; Jessie Ferguson has suggested that the best analogy may be that of regular installments in a long-running comics series. Whatever its nature, the performance that is César Aira is carried out aggressively, at the rate of two to four new titles each year.
Aside from its prolificacy, the most notorious aspect of this performance is its principle of “flight forward,” whereby Aira, instead of revising his work, simply moves on to the next page. Each paragraph comes as a fresh improvisation, generally to disorienting effect. In a typical sequence from Varamo, the title character feels a vague sense of disorder in the surrounding room, ignores it, finds it returning, and eventually realizes that the space is littered with golf clubs. An explanation is then spun out in which the owners of the house turn out to be large-scale smugglers of golf clubs into Panama, an operation made possible because one of them has only one leg and can pass off the clubs as a kind of walking stick. The process of ideas being hit upon, tried out and followed or discarded is wholly transparent. At its best, as in the scene where Varamo tries to embalm a fish playing a miniature piano, though he knows nothing about embalming nor, indeed, just what a piano looks like, it approaches the vim of a good standup act.
At other points the improvisatory technique recalls the dream-worlds of modernist fiction, with their constant irruption of new and ambiguous detail. There are shades of Kafka’s protean parents in the long set piece where Varamo’s mother appears from nowhere, harangues him about an anonymous letter, has to be carried around like a child in the dark and finally begins to speak a foreign language that the narrative pegs as Cantonese—prompting an unexpected and, it seems, unpremeditated disclosure that Varamo’s mother, and therefore Varamo himself, are ethnically Chinese. It is peculiar to Aira, however, to interrupt this scene with an aside like the following:
But how could he have a civilized conversation with that barbarous, instinctive, inhuman being: The Mother? How had other men managed in the past? A mother was a creature made up of superimposed layers of life: before and after giving birth, but also the befores and afters of all the other life-changing events, still present within her. Anything he said would have to be multiplied by all those layers of existential representation.
This abandons the genre of Kafka for something like a critical gloss on Kafka, and indeed a certain school of critical gloss, since Aira owes a clear debt to post-structuralism at its most freewheeling. The key contours of late Derrida or Barthes are all here: insistence on paradox, an account of language as always diverging from its source, and a happy flouting of argumentative structure. What the life-changing events of a mother might be, why a mother more than other beings compacts these events into existential layers, in what way this layering impedes speech: all is unspecified. One might say that this is what happens when you do philosophy of language without an eraser, but Aira does take some care with his carelessness. He has said that when readers ask him about one or another “theory” included in his books, he tends to reply that it was put in because it sounded good. Which is to say: if these are not quite parodies of essayistic digressions, they are at any rate deliberate simulacra. Some readers will enjoy the performances as they are. Others will try to puzzle out the point, and come away annoyed.
Varamo laughs at the critical conceit of content mirroring form, but it is pointedly a book about, as well as of, simulacra. The fish Varamo embalms, meant to simulate a living animal, turns out to possess no internal organs. His mother’s anonymous letter is a meaningless string of unpleasant phrases. The book opens as Varamo receives his month’s wages in inexplicable counterfeit bills—though later the question is raised of whether a nation as young as Panama in 1923, with its institutions so recent, has any criterion for separating the counterfeit from the real. This is one of only a few asides to remind us where we are, since in general anything that might pass for local color, either of place or of time, is cut out. The novel’s Panama is another see-through simulacrum, used for its connotations: a geographically central nation, yet culturally marginal compared to, say, Aira’s own Argentina, a liminal nation whose sovereign history is bound up with the passage the United States cut through its middle and whose lax laws now allow a fifth of the world’s merchant fleet to sail under its flag. The book comes nearest any sort of commentary in holding out the suggestion that the place of its setting is one more forgery.
The performance of an Aira novel requires a strong punch line, and Varamo manages a fairly good one, recuperating a number of motifs that it might easily have dropped. The translation, by Bolaño and Aira veteran Chris Andrews, catches both the critical argot of Aira’s mock essays and the matter-of-fact incongruities of the purely narrative portions. In general the English ably reworks the cleanly made sentences of the Spanish, though Andrews hews closest to Aira’s syntax precisely at the points where Aira is making the least sense. This too seems a sort of parable on content and form.
The overriding impression of Varamo is one of facility that dips periodically into facileness. Aira encounters the elements of his story as Varamo stumbles upon his masterpiece, by chance, as objets trouvés, and enjoyable as it is to see each pulled in turn from the hat, even a short novel built on such a principle can’t help but demonstrate the principle’s limits. Flaubert, the presiding genius of literature as sealed artifact, once claimed that he took such endless pains with his style precisely because he was not naturally gifted with words. Aira is a manifestly gifted writer who may find writing all too easy a job.
Paul Kerschen’s most recent work of fiction, The Drowned Library, was published in November by Foxhead Books.
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