Varamo by César Aira; translated by Chris Andrews (New York: New Directions, 2012; originally published in 2002. 144 pp)
Born in 1949 in Coronel Pringles, a town on the southern edge of the Argentine Pampas, César Aira is a novelist, essayist, and short story writer. He settled in Buenos Aires in 1967 and has earned a living through teaching and translating from French and English. He has published more than eighty novels.
Chris Andrews has won the TLS Valle Inclán Prize and the PEN Translation Prize for his New Directions translations of Roberto Bolaño. A poet who lives and teaches in Australia, he has translated eight Bolaño books and three novels by César Aira for New Directions.
A lot can happen in a day. While some submit to the 9-to-5 workload, others live on varied schedules. Some spend their free time whittling their talents through hobbies and side jobs; others need nothing more than a couch and a compelling television series. Have you ever considered the days in advance of the world’s greatest art? How did Michelangelo prepare for the Sistine Chapel? What did Melville do in the weeks ahead of his Moby Dick draft? What are you doing with your life right now?
César Aira’s Varamo follows a day in the life of its eponymous character, Varamo.
Counterfeit Money and Meaningful Art
Varamo begins as Varamo finishes a day of work in the Panamanian government. He quickly stops to collect his wages but something is wrong. Very wrong. The money given to him feels false. Varamo intuitively understands he has received counterfeit money.
Varamo is caught between a rock and a hard place. He can’t use the counterfeit bills, for then he will be complicit in illegal activity. Yet, he needs to make ends meet. Beginning with the end in mind, the reader discovers the consummation of the story. Varamo’s detection of the counterfeit bills leads him to write a celebrated masterpiece of poetry.
“The aim of this narrative is to lay out the events as they unfolded, one after another, in a casual sequence, from the moment at which he picked up the bills to the completion of the poem. Both extremities of the sequence were equally foreign to the usual run of his thoughts. He had never handled, or seen, a counterfeit bill. He was quite capable of imagining the forgery of money, but nothing in his personal experience or that of his associates had ever led him to consider it as a real possibility. Similarly, he had never written, or read, or given any thought to poetry, or any other literary genre, for that matter” (4-5).
Between receiving counterfeit money and writing a famed piece of literature, the reader follows Varamo through the bold and the mundane. He meets a variety of people as he reasons through his predicament: how to make ends meet for the next month.
Concerning the plot, there’s not much else to Varamo, the reader gains insight into the mind of Varamo through Aira’s intelligent prose. The brilliance of Varamo, however, lies in the meta aspects of the narrative. Aira often comments on the story he tells. For example,
“Although this book takes the form of a novel, it is a work of literary history, not a fiction, because the protagonist existed, and he was the author of a famous poem that is studied to this day as a watershed in the development of the Spanish American avant-garde movements. That being the case, the reader may well have wondered why, so far, the protagonist’s thoughts have been presented in ‘free indirect style,’ as it is called, a standard method in fiction and in the fictionalization of historical facts (which has no place here). There is an explanation for this choice, which in no way contradicts the present volume’s status as a strictly historical document. Any invention there might have been is involuntary and incidental; and a check of what has been written up to this point, carried out precisely now (taking advantage of the temporal margin left by Varamo’s meditation, proceeding, as it is, in real time), confirms that, in fact, there had been none” (43).
In other words, Aira tells a story about his story. He pauses the narrative to discuss the way he writes the book and the way the reader ought to read it.
Making Ends Meet vs. Doing What You Love
Moreover, Aira explicitly comments on the themes of the novella. At the center of this book lies a commentary on capitalism and the inherent need to make ends meet. Without proper compensation, Varamo faces grim prospects. Too often, life does not come down to creating; it instead is about value and opportunity cost. Work, instead of a place for people to convey creativity, becomes an economic trade of services for money. Aira notes,
“As for money, one need not to be a philosopher to see that what it does to society is to infect it with abstraction, which is hardly surprising, because money is abstraction, and that is precisely why it is useful” (47).
While a person might desire to use her photography skills creatively, the equation dictating her use of those skills is separated. Does society need a photographer? If it doesn’t, she must set aside her skills and work unfulfilled for the abstract idea of money and the sustenance it contains.
What Will You Create Today?
Varamo is an excellent work and, on the whole, Aira writes with inimitable style. With prose which reminds me of José Saramago, Varamo weaves brilliantly through Varamo’s Panamanian streets as our protagonist ponders how to be of use in the world. A lot can happen in the day and it seems like we too often forget how much opportunity exists for us to follow our dreams. Sometimes, as is the case with Varamo, the greatest work occurs with our backs against the wall. But, Varamo can inspire us to create our epic masterpiece. What will you create today?
I wholly recommend this book.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
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