What is it that we do, really, when we write? And why can’t a fish be embalmed to look like it’s playing a tiny piano?
One finds rhythms while walking down the stairs, poems strewn in the middle of the street.
— Oliverio Girondo
Can literature be composed by chance, rather than design? Where does one draw the line between author and text? What is it that we do, really, when we write? And why can’t a fish be embalmed to look like it’s playing a tiny piano? These questions, which read like the surreal(ist) offspring of Barthes and Dada, are but a few of those raised by César Aira’s Varamo. The novel, dexterously translated by Chris Andrews, delivers precisely what we have come to expect of the Argentine writer: an effervescent morsel best devoured in one sitting, confected of a series of loosely related and generally madcap episodes, and laced with moments of surprising conceptual density.
Aira is perhaps best known for his aleatory narrative style, the product of a technique he calls the "flight forward," which allows for no backward glances, no revision; only a dizzying accumulation of characters and plot twists that brings to mind an image of the author stumbling across an idea, dusting it off, and adding it to the motley strand of his narrative. Paradoxically, yet perhaps necessarily, these baroque storylines are typically expressed in a spare, precise prose that skates between the colloquial and the theoretical. It’s a balance that can be hard to achieve, and even harder to translate, but Andrews—also known for his acclaimed translations of Roberto Bolaño—does a masterful job of delivering Varamo’s non-sequitors in a crisp and natural English while switching gears between fantasia and philosophical gravitas as deftly as the original does.
The novel centers on a low-level Panamanian bureaucrat who inadvertently writes the definitive poem of the Latin American avant-garde, a work known as "The Song of the Virgin Child" (though, as the narrator admits, “the verb ‘to write’ covers a wide range of practices”). Playfully, in the serious playfulness typical of Aira, Varamo presents itself as a literary history, laying out the events that lead up to the poem's composition as a series of "causes" that generate the text. It all begins when our eponymous protagonist tries to collect his monthly wages and is handed two counterfeit hundred-peso bills. Aware of the situation but too timid to do anything about it, he wanders home, distraught. Over the course of the evening he is beset by bookies, voices emanating from the ether, a pair of gregarious spinsters, untrustworthy chauffeurs, publishers, politicians, and his physically diminutive but psychologically overbearing mother, who turns out to be Chinese. It is from these encounters that he unwittingly gleans the raw materials of his masterpiece-to-be.
Over the years, Aira’s “flight forward” method has, perhaps unsurprisingly, yielded a tremendous body of work: upwards of seventy books, in fact. Yet despite their wildly differing plots and the stylistic variations between them, these works hold together as an oeuvre, perhaps even better than they stand alone. They are united by a handful of recurring themes, on which Aira offers diverse—and often contradictory—perspectives from one book to the next. A perennial favorite among these is the relation between the process and the product of writing; in this, Varamo proves an exceptionally self-reflective case.
The poem at the heart of the novel is produced—spontaneously, accidentally—when our protagonist sits down to write something else: a treatise on his hobby and private passion, provisionally titled How To Embalm Small Mutant Animals. Advised not to be too fastidious about its composition, given that “immediacy is the key to a good style,” Varamo sets about assembling the work, fitting pieces together “in a purely cumulative fashion, without punctuation or divisions,” from the contents of his pocket at the end of the day. These include: notes on his trial-and-error taxidermy, a tally of winning and losing numbers played by his gambling-addicted mother, the key used to decipher communications between the members of a golf club smuggling ring, and the receipt for his mattress, which someone had turned into a menacing “poison-pen letter.” As for the watershed moment itself, it is described (in perfect literary-historical deadpan) right at the start:
One day in 1923, in the city of Colón (Panama), a third-class clerk, having finished work [. . .] left the Ministry in which he was employed. 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.
Sound familiar? One of Aira’s favorite literary gambits is to insert characters named César Aira into his fiction in a fairly stock, but nonetheless entertaining, conflation of the narrative and the authorial first person. Here, it is his method of composition that he sends in for a cameo appearance. Yet not even Aira’s freewheeling narrative universe is invulnerable to the specter of the counterfeit, of the valueless attempt at representation—of which the two bills hidden in our protagonist’s pocket serve as a constant reminder. “Even disregarding movement,” Varamo laments as his dream of embalming a fish to look like as though it were playing a piano dissolves before his eyes, “life simply had too many qualities, not to mention the impossibility of knowing for certain what they were.”
In this sense, Varamo grounds and illuminates Aira’s other works, though it is by no means dependent on them. At times the story can seem a bit hemmed in by its central conceit: the “flight forward” may be best suited to narrative habitats with ample space to roam, and can flounder when focused on a single act whose outcome is not open to improvisation (the composition of a canonical poem, for example). Still, the endearingly outrageous cast of characters that populates Aira’s Panama, a place where even the most ordinary acts can have extraordinary effects, carries the novel along. Both veteran and neophyte readers of Aira will find something new, and gratifying, in this slim volume.