‘Varamo’ by César Aira (Review)

Today’s review is of another of my lucky Latin library choices, and it’s by César Aira, a writer I first heard of during Trevor’s podcast chat with Tara about the BTBA shortlist.  He immediately sounded like a writer I should check out, although I knew nothing about him or his writing.  After my first try at his work though, I’m still not completely sure I’m any the wiser…

Varamo (translated by Chris Andrews) tells you all you need to know in the first paragraph:

“One day in 1923, in the city of Colón (Panama), a third-class clerk, having finished work, and since it was payday, passed by the cashier’s desk to collect his monthly salary, left the Ministry in which he was employed.  In the interval between that moment and the dawn of the following day, 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 [full stop – ed.], after which there were no more additions or corrections.”
p.1 (Giramondo Publishing, 2013)

Oh, except for the fact that the notes were forgeries – now that’s a good way to start a book…

The rest of the novella, just ninety-five pages long, follows Varamo as he wrestles with the problem of the forged notes and has several rather unusual encounters.  We meet a madman who hassles passers-by, insisting that they repay imaginary debts; we are introduced to Varamo’s mother, a Chinese immigrant (so small she only comes up to her son’s waist) who speaks nothing but Cantonese.  Later, we stroll towards a bar, only to have our outing interrupted by a crash which may, or may not, be an assassination attempt on a government minister.  Somehow, this all conspires to make Varamo a poet…

It’s a bizarre little book, a story of one humble man’s day, which is interrupted in the middle for the writer to insist on the factual nature of the story, before events go on to become more and more outlandish.  By parts Kafkaesque, with a bureaucrat who encounters bizarre situations and brushes them off (only to plunge headlong into an equally-absurd situation), Varamo leaves the reader scratching their head and wondering what to make of it all.  It’s interesting enough, but what it all means is anyone’s guess…

Varamo himself is a great creation.  Being an average office drone, the case of the forged notes is enough to throw him off balance (of course, he never thinks of just giving them back).  A typical civil servant, by vocation he is a man of inaction, and thus unable to just do something, anything, to resolve his dilemma – at times, you think he might drive himself mad thinking about it.

Not that there’s much to think about.  Varamo himself says that forgery is unknown in Panama, with no prior cases – which makes one wonder how he can be so sure that his salary was really counterfeit.  Even if it is, surely there’s no need for the over-analysis the poor man goes through (even if his conclusion, that acting natural is an impossibility, is a sound one…).

Still, the subsequent encounters serve to propel him to great heights, and there’s even a hint that the night’s events may have a romantic ending for the fifty-something bachelor.  Perhaps Varamo is a story of how unexpected occurrences can inspire people to climb out of their comfortable rut and find a better life for themselves.  Certainly, it’s hard to imagine that our hapless hero will go about life unchanged after the public holiday is over.

Whether it’s a book about the nature of the poet, the strange way coincidences occur, or simply why goldfish can’t play the piano, Varamo is a great way to while away an hour.  I’m just not sure it’s a book I’ll remember for a long time.  There’s a meaning in there somewhere, but where…

” Her shouting was completely incomprehensible, of course, and yet it was perfectly clear.  The different forms that madness and senility can take all have a common effect, which is to bring intentions to the surface, and it is with intentions that understanding begins and ends.” (p.29)

Just like the book 😉

P.S. As my library consortium had nothing by Aira, I requested this on an Inter-Library loan, and (knowing that his works are short) I actually requested The Literary Conference too, hoping to do a joint review of the two books.  Sadly, that didn’t pan out; you see, the library corporation I requested it from decided not to give it to me.  Why?  No idea.  It’s not important, but I thought, in the manner of Aira, I’d let you know about that little detail.  I’m sure there’s a moral in there somewhere…

14 thoughts on “‘Varamo’ by César Aira (Review)

  1. You have tipped my hand – I need to make an inter-library loan request for this one. It will be my sixth Aira novellino.

    Your ILL misadventure sounds like it could be the beginning of an Aira story.


  2. I've not read this one but have heard that it's a lesser Airean effort; however, most of the others I've read by him so far–except for the one about two lesbian punks named Mao and Lenin–have ranged from pretty good to downright brilliant. Aira inspires a lot of head-scratching, though, even from his fans (I mean, how could the one about the lesbian punks be such a countercultural dud?).


  3. Tom – Well, if I ever decide to take the advice I was given and visit that lbrary and try to become a member… 😉

    This was my first, but I did eventually manage to source another one via ILL ('Ghosts', which is meant to be a good one). He doesn't appear to have hit the UK and Aus yet, surprising as he seems fairly big in the States.


  4. Richard – Hmm – I suspect that he was out of his comfort zone with that one 😉 I'll have to read a few more to decide if he's a new favourite writer, or just someone of interest (at the very least, he's not going to outstay his welcome!).


  5. Reading a blog like yours makes me realise that for all the pessimism surrounding literature and its future, there is a huge variety of fiction being written and published just now. More importantly, there is always something new to be discovered!


  6. All right, I have read the book, and I do no think it is lesser Aira, but quite the contrary, admitting that to some degree Aira works in a conceptual category somewhere beyond good and bad.

    What might irritate many readers is that Varamo is very much about The Method, about Aira's own fiction and the way he writes it. Or else it so strongly appears to be about The Method that it is necessarily about something else entirely.

    Here is a fine line: “Faced with the alternative between becoming translators or alcoholic bums, some at least favored the first option” (76). Aira, coincidentally, is a translator.


  7. Tom – I think my problem is that not having read any of his other works, it's hard to see where he's going or how this fits in with his oeuvre. Still, it means I need to try a few more…


  8. Varamo is not my favorite Aira but I still like the randomness of it all. Maybe all kinds of stories have already been told, it's just a matter of assembling them all together like a stuffed piano-playing fish.


  9. Rise – Possibly 😉 I did enjoy this one, but I don't think it was a great introduction to his work as I'm still not really sure if he's a writer I'll love or not…


  10. I ve obnlky read landscape painter by him ,My library has very little and he isn't available on kindle so I not got much of him yet but penguin doing a reissue soon so hope to get that ,all the best stu


  11. Stu – He definitely hasn't made it in our part of the Anglosphere, but he's very big in the States. I think he needs a UK-based publisher to reissue some of these and build his profile – not sure why his name doesn't come up that often…


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