“Long long ago, in the continuum of the world’s reality, two random objects were set apart by a radical heterogeneity. A difference so irreducible no concept could embrace both things. No term except Being. That was how Being came into being, and from then on thought and philosophy existed too, at least until that afternoon in Panama…” when everything came to a halt for an idea. Part creation myth and part scathing satire, the narrator of Varamo is a hilariously tedious literary critic who is telling the story of a ‘bubble in time’ in the life of a government employee. Emphasized as an ‘exception without precent or sequel’, the reader is entered into a moment when the present is made discontinuous with the history and future of the institutions which impose upon time.
The narrator, who tasks herself with revealing the ‘process of inspiration’ behind the protagonist’s masterwork poem “Song of the Virgin Boy,” speculates that on this afternoon in 1923, that the ‘end of thought’ might be at hand, when the eponymous protagonist of Cesar Aira’s Varamo is paid his government salary in counterfeit money. The end of thought?… “But if people didn’t think, how would they occupy their time?” she then asks, a sentence that has plausible attribution to either her or Varamo, whose perspective is so intimate to the narrator’s consciousness as to make him seem the victim of a novella-length coercion. These moments occur often in Aíra’s work; questions arise from the circumstances expressed by the material of plot, but the thrust is orthogonal to the story and lands square on the lived experience of the reader. But the coercion is compelling for the reader, inasmuch as they can detect the parallels in the chosen narration and the metaphorical content of the staged actions.
The imposition of the impossible here does not beset Varamo except at the level of not being able to change his bills, which difficulty is solved serendipitously by the intervention of a publisher interested in his idea. The other impossibility is in the task upon which the narrator sets forth: the total recuperation of the material circumstances of inspiration, drawn from the text of a poem by the protagonist which is left coyly outside the reader’s purview. The free indirect discourse deployed throughout is used to persuade readers that the circuitry of events presently recreated is utterly deduced from the text of Varamo’s poem, a cheap mock-up of one among many idle fantasies of the lit-critical enterprise. Many have picked up on how Aíra is making a sort of sincere mockery of such a project in the novel, but the plausibility achieved in the narration [free indirect discourse, and not coincidentally, throughout], combined with its positioning in time, belies something more than a stylist at work, and tells a tale about the keeping of time in the era before the atomic clock, which never loses a beat.
What seems more interesting than admiring Aíra’s prodigious output and consistently uncanny sense of humor, is the examination of the book that attempts a view of its regard for and situation within chronological time. Aíra’s most recent critical work Las Tres Fechas argues for the importance of the dates of production and of publication, as well as the period of life from which subject matter is drawn, as integral to the reading of so-called minor writers. Varamo was finished in 1999, published in 2002, and the events contained happen in 1923, years that fall conspicuously about one decade before major economic collapses. But dates can only be held up under the premise that time is continuous, that years stand in relation to others and can be be brought into a dialectical relationship with each other. A strange thing Aíra does in Varamo is craft a narrator and story which resist this idea rather strongly. The book takes place in the course of the day, and the ‘act of invention,’ because it occurs in the hours past midnight when birds resemble dark clouds in the sky, is treated as an event that goes without saying. Because the text of the poem is part of common sense curriculum which is second-nature for all SouthAmerican schoolchildren in this universe. There is something that is eerily glossy about the narrator, who is oblivious to the interval between the Panamanian optimism of 1923 and the half-century of military intrusion which culminated with Noriega.
Many reviews of Aíra’s work try to come to grips with the writer’s idiosyncratic sense of humor, prodigious output and self-proclaimed ‘flight forward’ strategy of writing. There are plenty of career-recaps, summaries, and remarks to the effect of ‘something modestly cool going on underneath…something to do with content following form…” [NYT]. His writing is so nimble of phrase that some call it surreal, although Varamo in particular is a less ‘magical’ and more ‘realist’ example, and it seems to have a traceable correspondence to specific art movements and times. Though this is a fable in the sense that the story reasserts itself under questioning, other than the first act of receiving counterfeit bills as pay, the plotted material does not have the air of impossibility and doom found in Borges and Kafka. Mothers get paranoid and cook bad fish, madmen demand money in the square, birds eat a marshmallow in the moonlight, but the day passes like clockwork and no one turns into a bug. The ending is a moment of tongue-in-cheek celebration of the poem.
The book ends with the narrator curtly disclosing the process of composition of “Song of the Virgin Boy,” Varamo’s first written work, and supposed cultural touchstone in perpetuity for South American poetry. The narrator sees the relationship between work and inspiration as a closed system of two equal and opposite forces. The poem is composed by Varamo’s encryption, at the request of some publishing magnates, of a handful of documents: a poison-pen letter to his mother, notes on embalming small animals, some gambling debts and golf club inventories. The basic written minutiae of the day, the economized lists and household receipts. This rings of both rudimentary understandings of W.C. Williams, as well as some of the early works of the current conceptual movement such as Ken Goldsmith’s Fidget.
Varamo translates through the night at the urging of some pirate publishing magnates to write a book on embalmment of small mutant animals – the next day is a government holiday. His poem is encrypted using a codex broadcast nightly to calm the nerves of the Treasurer. The transmission of these unintelligible voices is triggered when Varamo makes his nightly walk to the café, linking the sanity of the secretary of money to the blithe, ritually precise circulation of this evening leisure activity. Varamo’s presumption that the voices he hears at the same place and time each night afflicts him alone conserves the sanity of the Treasurer. The codex and source of the voices is ultimately revealed to Varamo by ‘The Last Woman’ [aka Caresses] in order that he might mix up the key to prevent a coup [her boyfriend is a Haitian planning an uprising]. His instantly classic poem is thereby made of two opposite impulses, given by the publishers and Caresses, which are variations on the modernist mantras ‘make it new’ and ‘no ideas, but in things’. The book reveals itself under the same two auspices, with laboratory-tested ideas, and the caresses of a satire, and providing a powerful counterpoint for those who like to force writing into its darkest corners when reading.
C.J. Morello is a poet with a B.A. in Philosophy from University of Chicago and an M.A. in Writing from UC–Davis. His work is forthcoming in Gigantic and tweets come forth @siegethethird