A REVIEW OF CÉSAR AIRA’S
BY LEE SHEPPARD
The Rusty Toque | Issue 3 | Reviews | Fiction | October 12, 2012
In less than a day, the eponymous protagonist of César Aira’s Varamo, wrote The Song of the Virgin Child, a poem that the novel describes as the “origin and apogee of the most daring and experimental avant-garde movement in the language.” That we are told Varamo had never “written or felt any inclination to write a single line of poetry, nor would he ever again,” seems to announce definitively that Varamo is a work of magical realism. It is not the fantasy of someone who has never attempted to write anything themselves and who believes that art is the work of inspired geniuses, not hard working human beings: Aira has written more than seventy books. He says he never revises, which, if it is true, makes less absurd the idea of completing a work of great and lasting value overnight. The date at the bottom of the final page would have you believe that Aira wrote Varamo on, “December 15, 1999”. He, however, has a lot of practice producing interesting literature. Varamo does not.
Varamo ’s story is funny, playful, joyful and strange, but the greatest pleasures the book offers are the ideas laid like landmines throughout the text. The narrator occasionally expresses these ideas clumsily. More often, however, they are briefly mentioned, periodically returned to and elegantly elaborated on but in ways that allow you to complete each thought. Which is to say that, at its most engaging moments, Varamo meets, “The goal of literary work (of literature as work),” set out by Roland Barthes in his essay S/Z: “to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text.” Varamo is a guided tour through a hall of funhouse mirrors. The reader is confronted with repeated reflections of their own ideas, accurately or with considerable distortion, and is enticed into a conversation with the narrator and the text.
Varamo is a government clerk in Colón, Panama. The year is 1923. Before heading home from work on the day described, Varamo stops by the cashier’s desk and is handed two counterfeit 100 peso notes. He realizes immediately that the bills are counterfeit, but “his bureaucratic mentality had prevented him from responding promptly… and now that he had put them in his pocket it was too late.” Aira excels at expressions of mundane truth, though the first explanation of Varamo’s failure to protest, his “bureaucratic mentality”, feels like an overly simplistic and partial explanation. I suspect that manners would be the largest impediment to complaint, but I concern myself with personal, rather than social explanations for behaviour—Aira is not so limited in his scope. The second explanation, that after Varamo puts the notes in his pocket it is too late to say anything, offers the reader an even greater opportunity to complete the text than the previous statement: rather than arguing with or elaborating on the narrator’s reasoning, you speculate why this is true for Varamo. Does he think the cashier will suspect him of switching the bills if he pulls them back out of his pocket, or is it because social logic says that once the action is completed—that is, the bills are accepted—Varamo thinks it would be rude to change his mind? It becomes clear later on that Varamo fears punishment for even possessing the counterfeit money and perhaps this is what stops him from protesting.
Aira’s narrator takes great pains that you note the significance of the counterfeit bills. “…We must remember that just as the episode had an end (the poem itself), so it had a beginning, and the two points correspond symmetrically, as an effect corresponds to its cause, or vice versa. The cause, as suggested already, intervened when Varamo, having finished his day’s work, went to the cashier’s desk to collect his salary.” The counterfeit bills then are the beginning of the episode presented in this book, and they will be significant to the unfolding events and determine the ending. Shouldn’t that go without saying, especially considering the fact that they are at the beginning of the story? If there is symmetry between the beginning and end, can we not be trusted to discover that symmetry on our own?
Varamo consistently highlights the asymmetry between what seems to be and what is. Though little is done to draw the reader’s attention to it, this tension seems to be one of the central themes of this book. The counterfeit bills are just the first example of something other than what it seems, and Aira is not content to let us sit with the obvious observation that counterfeit bills are not money even though they look like it. The narrator observes that, “The counterfeit bills, precisely because they are counterfeit, bring an element of irreducible materiality to a space of abstractions and equivalences.” Because it calls on my intellect to complete the thought, this idea explodes with possibility. Counterfeit bills are different from legal tender because they can only be themselves. Money, on the other hand, has value precisely because it is not itself, but a symbol of value or placeholder for something of value.
Near the end of the book Varamo has a conversation with three publishers of bootleg literature. “Every book contains the seed of another,” is one among many observations that they make. Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire seems to have provided seminal genetic information for Varamo’s seed. Where Pale Fire, however, contains the poem to which the novel is ostensibly a footnote, you will not find a word of Varamo’s poem The Song of the Virgin Child in the pages of this volume. What you will find is, in the exact middle of the book, a long explanation of how the narrator used the poem to reconstruct the events described.
While the conventional work of art thematizes cause and effect and thereby gives the hallucinatory impression of sealing itself off, the avant-garde work remains open to the conditions of its existence. And the more accomplished it is, the more confident the critic can be in restoring the antecedent events and thoughts. In the case of a masterwork like Varamo’s poem, the confidence is absolute, and all the critic has to do is translate each verse, each word, backwards, into the particle of reality from which it sprang.
Aira has here cast the narrator as a buffoon of a critic. The narrator’s strange and fallacious reasoning is clearly an explanation of the poems absence, though the form of the book also an explanation. A work of criticism or biography rarely reprints the work (or works) to which it refers in its (or their) entirety. Reprinting the poem might be like amateurish exposition in a bad Science Fiction story—an undermining of the illusion of an authentic fictional narrator. Besides, the point is clearly not the poem, but its origin and influence. Still, it is hard not to wish for even excerpts from a poem so adoringly described.
The back cover of the New Directions paperback informs the reader that, “Among other things, this novel is an ironic allegory about inspiration, the poet’s vocation, the subtlety of artistic brilliance, and our need to give literature an historic, national, psychological, and aesthetic context.” These are dangerous ideas to put into a readers head; I read so many episodes in the book as allegories of the challenges faced by the fiction writer that I fear I may be paranoid.
Varamo, an aspiring taxidermist, has been keeping a fish alive inside a bowl. On the evening described, he begins the process of embalming the fish. Varamo’s challenge as a taxidermist is that, “The finished products, especially if he was hoping to sell them, had to display certain obvious qualities, transcending the process of their production.” This seems to describe beautifully the challenge faced by writers of realist narratives. The narrator goes on to observe that Varamo knows, “The animals had to ‘turn out’ well—whole, shiny, natural, strikingly posed—in other words, they had to turn out to be just as they’d been at the start, before the process began.” Is this meant as a criticism of anyone who would fool with attempting to create a fictional world so realistic that it is indistinguishable from reality? Why not just write non-fiction? Why not just let the fish live? The following paragraph begins, “[Varamo’s] aim had been to produce a fish playing the piano,” which is an answer to the question, Why not just let the fish live?, but is also very funny following the above statements regarding realism. Allegorically, it seems to elegantly express the challenge faced by writers of magical realist or speculative fiction. Make a fish look natural, but also give the illusion that it is playing the piano. There is, of course, a challenge. “Having twisted [the fish’s] 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 [Varamo] 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.” I cannot tell you how many times I have twisted a character into a position only to find it completely unnatural to them or to discover that they were ill equipped for the purpose I intended them for.
There are a number of surprises about the fish itself. When Varamo cuts it open to remove its viscera, “the inside of the fish turned out to be empty.” After his embalming turns the creature into a “formless and repulsive” object, Varamo throws the fish into a bowl of water and goes to wash his hands. When he returns, he finds that the fish is still alive, which is simultaneously reassuring and discouraging for writers of fiction, if you consider this the ultimate moment of the allegory.
The most obvious challenge this book offers to the fiction writer is to not be too neat and tidy. Sorry for this pat statement, but Varamo’s characters—rendered with the simplicity and confidence of an accomplished contour drawing—are like many people (and almost everything else in this book) in that they rarely at first appear as they truly are.
At one point Varamo ends up in the grand house of two sisters. Varamo does not seem to think, despite popular opinion, that the sisters are running a brothel. Your reviewer, when confronted with the narrator’s observations about the sisters, thought “Is Varamo a naïf?” Not so. Varamo simply withholds his judgement, which allows him eventually to see what they actually are. Fiction is presented in this case as a way people cope with mystery. “Women who live on their own,” like the sisters, “always provoke gossip, especially when they keep to themselves and no one knows where their money comes from.” But isn’t the gossip so much less wonderful than the more surprising (and true seeming) fiction—constructed by Aira for our pleasure, but also as a warning against simple fictions—that the sisters are golf-club smugglers.
It will by now be clear that I have read Varamo from the perspective of a fiction writer. However, I do not want to give the impression that Varamo is only a rewarding read for writers. Critics of government will walk away from this book with something different that I did. Ditto a student of philosophy or history. The signifiers and signified in Varamo have such a slippery relationship with each other that serious students of semiotics will be satisfied by careful and repeated readings. It is impossible for me to know what this book is like in Spanish as I don’t know the language, and it is impossible for me to imagine how different this book would be to a Panamanian, patriot or ex-. For them, or for a host of other people, Varamo’s allegories might suggest different truths and its dream visions read instead as the echoes of nightmares.
LEE SHEPPARD is a writer, musician, high school teacher, and contributing co-editor of Pilot, an illustrated literary magazine.