This latest little recently translated gem by Cesar Aira is only 89 pages long but packs in more fanciful ideas and crazy images than you would find in most 200+ page novels. This book took me about an hour to read (maybe a little less) and by the end I felt like I’d just woken up from a really trippy, weird food inspired dream.
The basic plot of the book concerns the titular character, Varamo, a 1920’s government employee in Panama. In the opening scenes of the novel, he is handed his paycheck, which unfortunately turns out to be counterfeit money. In the last pages of the book, he sits down and writes “the most celebrated masterwork of modern Central American poetry, The Song of the Virgin Boy,” despite having never previously written or read a single line of poetry or any form of literature.
The way that Varamo gets from Point A (counterfeit money) to Point B (literary infamy) is the the book’s main subject. Aira has a lot of fun with this idea of sequences–in a way it’s the perfect subject for him, because a lot of his fiction plays with how one thing can lead to the next. Aira is famous for his writing style, in which nothing is discarded but instead he just keeps the pen moving and goes on to the next page. It’s like all his books are one giant freewrite. This occasionally gives his books a slightly improvisatory feel–in the middle of reading a page you sometimes you feel like you’re “reading” the act of him coming up with his ideas.
The best example of this is the scene with Varamo in a house that is vaguely cluttered, which he initially ignores before realizing that it’s because of all the golf clubs that are lying around. This leads to a long sequence that explains how the sisters that live in the house make their living by smuggling in golf clubs for all the French, British and American people working on the canal (smuggling, counterfeit and illegal activities is a reoccurring motif through the book). It was mentioned earlier that one of the sisters had a prosthetic leg, so she is able to smuggle the golf clubs off the ship one at a time by pretending that they were a strange kind of new walking stick that the customs officials don’t recognize. The golf clubs also explain why everyone in the town thinks that the sisters work in another kind of highly illicit business: “smuggling in putters” sounds uncomfortably like “smuggling in putas.” Nevermind if this isn’t wholly believable (so nobody would notice the same woman walking up and down a gangplank thousands of times with a peculiarly shaped walking stick?)–what counts is the buildup with the unexpected payoff. It’s a dream-like logic, in which everything in isolation is totally weird and doesn’t make any sense (prosthetic leg + golf clubs + rumored whore house), but when you put it all together, it somehow all fits.
Another great example of this “one thing leads to another” method is the sequence in which we learn about Varamo’s side hobby: embalming dead mutant animals. First of all, the idea of embalming as a hobby is just plain hilarious. I also liked how Aira uses the description of embalming as way to mention all the pollution and toxic metals that are getting thrown into the water by the foreign companies digging the canal (it’s a great way to make an important point without hitting us over the head with a long political rant). I loved his description of how he tries to embalm a fish to look like it’s playing a miniature piano, before he realizes (what a mistake!) that fish have no arms, so then he’s stuck with trying to make it look like it’s playing a wind instrument instead.
This little pet interest of Varamo’s reminded me of the narrator of The Literary Conference and his mad scientist hobby of cloning famous Latin American authors. In these two works Aira obviously is interested in incorporating the scientific progress alongside long philosophical reflections on the nature of literature (kind of a thinking man’s science fiction). The very scientific, precise way that Varamo works on his embalming (step one leading to step two to step three) is paralleled with the search for literary inspiration. Anyway, Aira’s writing in this section was a big inspiration for me; I would love to be able to do what he does in sequences like this one.
The other aspect I enjoyed most about this book was the way that things that appear in earlier pages reappear later on in the book in unexpected and delightful (or sometimes just plain weird) ways. A candy that Varamo throws away in a bush in the main square, for example, reappears on the next to last page as the inspiration for Varamo’s last epiphany before he heads home to start work on his masterpiece. Birds swoop around the bush, delicately pecking at the candy and eating it one piece at a time, in a scene that strikes Varamo as unexpectedly and poetically beautiful, what he calls a “writerly experience”:
“For him, everything was “writerly” now. Poision or elixir, narcotic or aphrodisiac, whatever it was, this flower [the melted candy stuck to the bush], relic of a day in the life of an accidental writer, an inadvertent counterfeiter leaving his traces in code, the birds were coming to try it, performing a dance for no one and flying up toward the moon.” (88)
There were a lot of ideas I loved in this book, and I don’t have enough time to cite or fully describe them all. I do need to namecheck regularity racing, a concept that is just plain delightful. Regularity racing is a form of auto racing that Varamo witnesses, in which the winner is the person who drives the most punctually at the most average speed on the race course and reaches the top-secret checkpoints at pre-determined times. “In fact,” Aira writes, “competing in a regularity rally was so nerve-wracking that it could turn a normal and previously law-abiding citizen into an anarchist.”
I could go on and on about things I liked about this book; Aira is always like a rich little treasure trove for me. I don’t know if I could recommend him to everyone; there are some parts of his books that are a little philosophical, Big Idea heavy that read like very intense digressions. A good example of this in Varamo is the section about Varamo’s mother:
“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.”
Like, you read these asides in the middle of a long paragraph, and then you’re like, “I could stop and give that idea intense thought and reflection… but then I might go insane, so I think I’ll just keep reading.” Not a bad strategy.
The biggest punchline book comes at the very end. If you haven’t read this book yet and you plan to, consider this an official SPOILER ALERT: it turns out that Varamo’s epic, critically acclaimed poem is just a word for word transcription of all the papers the Varamo collected in his pockets over the course of the day.
The first thing that this made me think of, of course, was Borges’ Pierre Menard, in which a word-for-word transcription is also highly praised and critically acclaimed as this transcendental work of art (“Cervantes’ text and Menard’s are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer”). We never get to see Varamo’s poem, but Aira to me seems to be making fun of or commenting on the idea of how you represent realism in fiction. The reason I think this is because in an earlier section, right before Varamo runs home to write, he’s in a cafe talking to some book publishers who make money publishing counterfeit books by revered literary heroes like Darío (there you go again with the illegality motif!):
“In fact, the publishers admitted that over the last few years they had simply been turning out the same kind of product; they needed to provide a new generation of readers with something really new to read. Perhaps, said one, “the time had come for realism.” The other two disagreed vehemently: the time for realism would never come. To which the reply, and here they were all in agreement again, was that it depended on how realism was defined. The time for realism in that sense (to be defined) was always now.” (78)
This section made me think about a topic that I never got to write about for my undergraduate senior year thesis (so much for too much coffee and poor time management, LOL–whatever, maybe I’ll get to do it in graduate school!). There was supposedly going to be a big section in my thesis about literary realism. I was gonna read the works by this homeboy called Lukács, and talk about how in his POV, the modernist, subjective ways of depicting reality (a la Kafka, Joyce, etc) were decidedly inferior to the traditional ways of realism (a la Balzac). The main reason that Lukács thought that realism in modernist literature kind of sucked (based on my memory and wikipedia, two not super good resources) was that it wasn’t effective at confronting objective reality, specifically the capitalist totality that underlies all of our puny existences (important to note homeboy Lukács was obviously a Marxist).
The reason why I think this is interesting in connection to Varamo, is that Aira seems to be parodying this idea of Varamo having created great art using just these very raw materials from this capitalist world he moves through: receipts, gambling notes, etc. Like, there is NOTHING subjective about this kind of art; it is PURE objective reality. But would this kind of poem really be this transcendental, avant-garde, revolutionary work of art, or is it just this hapless dude dutifully typing up his notes as he was instructed to do by the book publishers he just met?
The other thing that I think is interesting is that I do kind of agre with Lukács. Personally, I like books that try to incorporate this greater sense of reality, a tiny slice of the bigger picture that the characters move in. Latin American authors do a good job of this by mentioning political or economic situations: Varamo with the Panama Canal, Bolaño with all his references the Central American revolutions, torture in Chile or violence at the Mexican border, not to mention ORWELL (the undisputed King of the lot). To me, a work of fiction is all the more powerful and better if it tries to make some kind of commentary or point something out about the bigger world we all move in. It’s fine that there are books that are just for entertainment value only, books that just try to tell a good story, but as Rodolfo Walsh once wrote, “These are different times, and this is a time for a bigger undertaking.” Does this mean that I don’t like my modernist parche, my Kafka and Woolf, Joyce and Faulkner? No…. there’s a time and place for subjectivity… and I DON’T agree that subjective modernist works can’t make a big point about our messed up capitalist world the way more traditionally realist works can…. but that’s a discussion for another day.
Anyway, I would recommend reading this book, as well as the ““Realism in the Balance” (1938)—Lukács’ defence of literary realism” section of the Lukács wikipedia article. Two interesting reads for a sleepy Sunday morning.