Review: Varamo by César Aira
Some say that everyone has a story in them. In the case of César Aira’s Varamo, the story in question happens to be a masterpiece. How the masterpiece came to be is another story and the primary focus of Aira’s novel. Within the first paragraph of the book, the reader is made aware of the plot. Aira sets up his philosophical meditation on the nature of creativity — and more specifically, writing — by laying bare the ending.
Varamo (the eponymous protagonist) is an unimpressive bureaucrat from Panama who is paid his monthly wages with counterfeit currency and writes a masterpiece of modern Central American poetry entitled The Song of the Virgin Child twenty-four hours later. His life has not produced any previous inclination to write and will not produce any further urge beyond the one masterful poem. Instead of focusing on the content of Varamo’s masterpiece, Aira’s short novel takes us from the protagonist’s bashful complicity and anxiety over his counterfeit wages through the night until the moment writerly inspiration strikes.
Aira is known for his “flight forward” style of writing, which can be described as a mindful stream of consciousness that adheres to the author’s higher awareness of structure. The writing in Varamo is brisk and improvisational, taking us through dreams of embalmed fish playing a piano, a golf club smuggling ring and analysis of the bureaucrat’s gambling-addict mother at such breakneck speed and careful clarity, that the reader almost forgets about the masterpiece which is being discussed until the last page.
While this book is both an exploration of the craft of writing and a celebration of the ordinary lives being lived by the majority of people in the world, I also get the sense that it is a peek at the author’s own writing methods. Careful readers might sense that the anxiety that Varamo feels at the beginning of the novel is more than just symbolism for the uneasiness that propels a writer’s thoughts onto the page. It is as if Aira has played with structure and style to inject himself as an omnipresent character that is never mentioned.
The easy comparisons for any Argentine writer are Borges and Cortazar. Aira’s work displays his influences proudly, but also carves out a place in South American literature all its own. Varamo is a book that can be casually enjoyed for its meandering and quirky plot, but the reader who puts forth the effort to connect the pieces of the story will be pleasantly satisfied with the way Aira delivers and surprises in the end.