A Writerly Experience: Petrina Meldrum reviews ‘Varamo’ by César Aira (Trans. by Chris Andrews).

Varamo a novel by César Aira (Trans. by Chris Andrews). Giramondo 2012

Varamo-200x0Roberto Bolaño’s quote on the back cover of Varamo, ‘If there is one contemporary writer who defies classification, it is César Aira’, provides us with an insight into what we are about to experience as we enter the covers of this book. Varamo flies in the face of all expectations of what a novel should be, something it’s author, César Aira, would be proud of. For Aira, writing a novel is a work of art—something so individual and personal, that the result should be capable of confounding even the literary critics. Credit should be given to Sydney-based Chris Andrews for an excellent translation which allows us to read Aira’s work in the spirit in which it was written.

If you are looking for a plot to follow this is not a book for you, you need to be prepared follow the flow. In various essays and interviews Aira tells us that he does not have a plan, his method is to keep moving forward without looking back or editing what he has already written. If this is true he is an exceptionally talented writer with a clarity of thought to be envied.

In under one hundred pages, in a time frame of less than twelve hours, Aira tells us the rich and dense tale of a Panamanian civil servant, Varamo, who on this particular day, having been paid his salary for the month in counterfeit notes, follows his daily routine ‘overwhelmed by anxiety’. Unmarried at fifty, still living with his Chinese mother (a tale in itself), Varamo is a born worrier who analyses everything before acting. When things go wrong, and they often do, he asks himself, ‘Why me of all people? Why me?’ only to conclude that everyone else could be saying the same thing.

The counterfeit money weighs heavy in his pocket as he worries about how he can possibly appear innocent if arrested for its possession when his face will clearly show that he is aware he is carrying counterfeit money. In his quest to replace the effective loss of a month’s wages he decides to embalm a fish he keeps in the sink at home and complete the model he is making of a fish playing the piano, in the hope that he might sell it. We are treated to this process in both excruciating and hilarious detail. It is not the model that solves his financial problems but the detailed notes he takes so that he can repeat the experiment. Never having written a word in his life, he is talked into writing a ‘how to book’ about embalming by three pirate publishers, and is paid two hundred pesos, the exact amount of his lost salary. This book becomes the ‘celebrated masterpiece of modern Central American poetry, The Song of the Virgin Child.’

Aira has the ability to place a golden nugget in the narrative and pick it up much later to bring a smile of appreciation to our faces. An example of this is when Varamo purchases a piece of candy (an ordeal in itself) that becomes runny and sticky after having been held for too long while he is distracted by the noise of a bugle being played on the lowering of the Panamanian flag. In an agitated state he disposes of the candy on the end of one of the branches of a tall bush. Almost at the end of novel he is fascinated by a flock of birds ‘circling at medium altitude’; the birds break away in twos and threes and converge on a particular bush to take, without perching, ‘one peck each, at a big red spot stuck on a branch’. It is of course the candy he left there hours before. By this stage, having met the publishers, he is looking at life differently. He is no longer agitated and muses over the consideration the birds have for one another, viewing the episode as ‘interesting and poetic: a writerly experience.’

In the middle section of Varamo, the narrator takes time out of the story to explain to the reader, at length, not only the benefits of using the free indirect style of narration, but also that everything we have read so far is not taken from historical data, as in fact no such data exists; it is merely what literary critics have deduced from the content of the book (a list of the information contained on all the scraps of paper Varamo has accumulated in his pockets during the preceding ten to twelve hours) written by Varamo at the request of the three publishers; the book that became the celebrated masterpiece. This is clearly a dig at literary criticism and is executed with wry humour. Handled equally well is the section towards the end of the book which deals with the publishing industry—purported to relate to pirate publishing in Panama, but to which I suspect Aira wishes to attribute a more universal relevance.

I doubt that anyone has ever crammed so much into a hundred pages; it is impossible to do justice to all the detail here. Aira has published over seventy of these short novels. Unfortunately Varamo is only the seventh to be translated into English from the original Spanish. The next one, due out later this year, also translated by Chris Andrews, is Shantytown. But take care, I suspect these novels are addictive.

– Petrina Meldrum

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Petrina Meldrum is a Tasmanian based writer with an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Tasmania. Her short stories for adults and children have appeared in a number of publications. She is presently working on a novel.

Varamo is available from http://www.giramondopublishing.com/fiction/varamo/

If you are looking for a plot to follow this is not a book for you, you need to be prepared follow the flow. In various essays and interviews Aira tells us that he does not have a plan, his method is to keep moving forward without looking back or editing what he has already written. If this is true he is an exceptionally talented writer with a clarity of thought to be envied.

One thought on “A Writerly Experience: Petrina Meldrum reviews ‘Varamo’ by César Aira (Trans. by Chris Andrews).

  1. Pingback: Issue 8: June 2013 – August 2013 | Rochford Street Review

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