César Aira, 1999
I have become quite enamored by the Argentine born César Aira. His short novellas pack a punch with their ability to stretch the limits of the mind’s imagination. With the third novella of Aira’s that I’ve digested, Varamo, I’ve come to appreciate the structure that drives Aira’s short works. Much like The Literary Conference and The Seamstress in the Wind, Varamo follows a pattern of ideas building off of ideas following a seemingly benign character through a series of increasingly bizarre events. However, unlike The Literary Conference and Seamstress, both of which leap into the realm of the fantastical with a giant carnivorous worms and an anthropomorphized wind, Varamo is comparatively pedestrian with a plot that stands on this side of reality’s narrative.
The title character, Varamo, is a lonely Panamanian government employee that spends his free time embalming fish with hopes to create a humorous sculpture of a fish playing the piano. Varamo’s greatest concern is the realization that his sculpture cannot be because fish don’t have the hands to play the piano. His life is simple and without worry until he is paid his monthly salary in counterfeit bills. The possession of the bills throws Varamo into a moral and philosophical dilemma since the punishment for using the bills would potentially lead him towards imprisonment, and yet he has no savings to subsist on for the next month while his mother accrues gambling debts he must pay off. Wandering the streets pondering his dilemma, Varamo witnesses a supposed attempt on the life of the national treasurer that leads him into a home where he is caught in a conversation about the black market of golf clubs and he is given a copy of a book of codes meant as a guide to overthrow the government. Eventually he comes to a cafe (his original destination) where he stumbles into a conversation with pirate booksellers that convince him to write a book about his embalming. As Varamo leaves the cafe with the intent of writing his book he is inspire by birds pecking at a piece of candy he dropped earlier that day to write “celebrated masterpiece of modern Central American poetry,” titled “The Song of the Virgin Child.”
Cataloging the events that take place in Varamo as I’ve done above doesn’t ruin the significance of the plot’s progression. This isn’t a novel so much about the events that happen to Varamo the poet as it is a novel about the way in which events influence subsequent events. All the happenings of one’s life are like a series of dominoes, impacting the falling of the following domino. Varamo, ponders this reality as the narrative voice proposes that “the thread is sinuous and long, the concepts slippery, the meanings elusive, but the reconstruction is not, in fact, all that difficult; if is carried out step by step: only one has to follow the order of the thoughts, and there’s no way to go wrong, because each thought emerges from its predecessor, as in numerical sequence (38).” As I’ve noted above, the connection of events seems to be a central theme in Aira’s work. Additionally, Aira is focused on the effects that art influences upon the reader’s perception of reality. In Varamo these effects come to the forefront as the third person narrator enters into a theory about the importance of fictional narrative as a means to understand social relationships:
“Invention can assume the form of a documentary record of reality, and vice versa, because both have essentially the same appearance. Free indirect style, which is the view from inside the character expressed in the third person, creates and impression of naturalness, and allows us to forget that we are reading fiction and that, in the real world, we never know what other people are thinking, or why they do what they do. Naturalness, in general,is the confusion of the first and third persons. So, far from being just another literary technique, free indirect style is the key mechanism of trans-subjectivity, without which we would have no understanding of social interactions.” (43)
This passage about the limits of understanding the thoughts of another and the possibility that fictional literature provides a method to understand social interactions essentially explains why it is I am continuously drawn towards reading fiction. I don’t read merely to escape or for entertainment, although reading does satisfy these needs, I read fiction because it expands my understanding of other’s hopes and difficulties and I believe that reading makes me a more compassionate and fulfilled person. Now, with that said, does Varamo live up to these idealistic goals? Unfortunately, I think not. Although Varamo does provide some food for thought, it was my least favorite of the three works of César Aira that I’ve read to date. In reflection, I was hoping for more of the fantastical that I was charmed by within The Literary Conference and The Seamstress in the Wind and the pedestrian subject matter of Varamo failed to inspire me as did those other masterful works penned by César Aira. This doesn’t mean that I’m finished with him, one can’t expect every work by an artist to seduce the reader with equal charm, but I know that César Aira has plenty to offer and I will read more.