on Varamo, a novel by César Aira ((New Directions)

The Argentinean novelist César Aira claims that each morning he ambles down to a local café, takes his usual seat, savors a cup of coffee, and then writes a single page of prose for a novel-in-progress. With that, his work is done for the day, or so he has said in several interviews. In this manner he has produced around 60 short novels at a rate of two per year. He gives the impression of a writer in the thrall of method as salvation, employment and diversion.

AiraBW.jpegApparently, one of the usages (or entertainments) of his free afternoons is to explicate his artistry, or pretend to. Such canny speeches offer the benefit of pre-qualifying and inculcating his readership – and heightening the fundamentalism of himself. Servants of method or not, his novels are beloved for the freedoms they seem to take.

Like Aira’s chatty discourse, the premise of Varamo both illuminates and clouds, explains and ridicules the process of literary output. An unambitious Panamanian ministry worker named Varamo collects his pay of 200 pesos only to discover that the bills are counterfeit. “In the interval between that moment and the dawn of the following day,” says the narrator, “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.” Although he had never written anything before that day in 1923, Varamo produces ex nihilo “that celebrated masterpiece of modern Central American poetry, ‘The Song of the Virgin Child.’”

AiraCover.jpegThe mock-official tone of the novel presides over the comic documentary: “The aim of this narrative is to lay out the events, as they unfolded, one after another, in a causal sequence, from the moment in which he took the bills up to the completion of the poem.” Everything may be explained. At either end of the story is an extremity (bad bills/renowned masterpiece) – and between them “an uncontrollable proliferation of intermediate steps. So the sequence was dense with meaning, but threatened from within by the infinite.”

There you also have Aira’s description of his Method. Begin with a premise based on extremities, select from an unrestricted pool the plot-moves that get you from start to finish, and thicken the action with the density of meaning. (“Density” here is something like an auspicious fog.) In Varamo and Aira’s other novels, the absurd and zany exist within the standard and dull. Varamo’s hobby is taxidermy, “his aim had been to produce a fish playing the piano.” I’m reminded of that complaint with surrealism by Wallace Stevens who said “it invents without discovering. To make a clam play an accordion is to invent not to discover.” But Aira uses the surreal to thicken things with meaning (usually a satiric seasoning). Varamo’s hapless and hilarious embalming experiments make Stevens’ point even while we empathize with a slacker who would place a sardine at the keyboard.

In a Bombsite interview, Aira said, “Verisimilitude is sacred to me. However with my used of chance, my innate taste for surrealism, maintaining verisimilitude is a challenge.” This is how his method is “threatened from within by the infinite.” His mastery depends on spectacular inventiveness with an eye on recognizable contexts – and also, on his tonal cadences. In his 1977 Paris Review interview, Stanley Kunitz said, “You cannot write a poem until you hit upon its rhythm. The rhythm not only belongs to the subject matter, it belongs to your interior world, and the moment they hook up there’s a quantum leap in energy.” Although he is not interested in the sheer sensuality of strung phrases, Aira creates an irresistible environment out of the cadences themselves.

AiraColor.jpegThe bachelor Varamo wanders from his office to the local park, then to his house (and his semi-demented mother), and finally out to his local bar. He meets many characters in passing as fateful events intervene. He witnesses an accident during the “regularity races” – contests in which drivers race through the city at predetermined speeds with the goal of arriving at the finish line at precisely designated times. In a crossroads collision, the country’s Treasurer is injured and carried to a nearby house – that of the Góngora sisters who, it turns out, make their living by having cornered the market for imported golf clubs. Varamo tags along, since he knows the Treasurer’s driver:

“Many years before, the engineers and other foreigners working on the canal, from France, England and the United States – three nations crazy about golf – had introduced the game, creating a demand for clubs, which grew as the local public servants, anxious to be fashionable, began to play as well … And that was where the Góngoras came in, seizing the opportunity, occupying the little economic niche that society provides for each of its members, though few realize it and reap the rewards. The Góngoras found their opening by a curious stroke of chance: someone realized that the safest way to smuggle the clubs in was to board a ship docked in Colón and disembark again soon afterward, walking with the aid of a ‘stick,’ which was, in fact, a golf club. Since the customs agents and port inspectors had no idea about golf and had never seen the clubs, they assumed that they were a strange kind of walking stick, and gave the matter no more thought … After all, in modern capitalist society, everyone had to look after their own interests, and the natural and appropriate way to do that was crime. Which meant that society as a whole was bathed in a criminal atmosphere. The law was just a regulatory mechanism.”

This is what Aira’s prose consistently sounds like – and it is highly aware of its sound. Nothing is wasted. “In fact, if this were a novel,” says the narrator, “its principal shortcoming would be the cold intellectual abstraction pervading its pages, which is produced by the use of the free indirect style to create a point of view at once internal and eternal to the protagonist, who as a result becomes a discursive entity, drained of life.”

AiraBathtub.jpgIt is true – Varamo is not explicable though the reader is encouraged to understand the main aspects of his distress and confusion. The “free indirect style” is certainly part of Aira’s toolbox, but there is also a conventional comic impulse at work that mocks Varamo without deflating it.

We know from page one that there will be a happy ending: “The result was his famous poem, except that it was less a result in itself than a way of transforming what had preceded it into a result.” Aira is truly a benevolent illusionist – since he has created a narrative that illustrates the point above while simultaneously discrediting the enterprise. In the end, we feel like Varamo: “Once again he was struck by how the inexplicable can lie hidden within what we have always taken for granted.”

[Published February 22, 2012. 96 pages, paperback original, $12.95. Translated by Chris Andrews]

Aira's prose style

Not sure what Natasha Wimmer means when she said in the New York Time BR that Aira "writes scenes of great prosaic beauty." Not at all, he writes scenes of great prosaic conciseness and clarity. You don't get carried away by his prose but you do go for miles by a modest conveyance. Been teaching Aira in my writing workshops for three years now.