My love affair with César Aira began at the Idlewild Bookshop. A friend handed me a copy of GHOSTS and said “This looks interesting. You read it and let me know if it’s any good”. (These assignments occur more often then you might think). And so I read it. Afterwards, I began to hunt for other Aira books with the single-minded focus I’d previously reserved for obscure short stories by Faulkner & Salinger (4 hours and $25.00 spent at the NYPL making copies of Hapworth 16 1924 from the 1965 New Yorker magazine microfiche). Fortunately New Directions publishes a nice selection of his translations, immensely simplifying my task.
Why my passion? Because no one writes like Aira. His small novellas – usually under a hundred pages – contain line-after-line of sublime prose. Each is a tiny, carefully articulated, universe. Like a miniature diorama you can lose yourself in for hours. The plots, on the other hand, appear relatively straight-forward. Deceptively so, in my opinion.
Varamo is “a third-class clerk” working for the Panamanian government. In the year 1923, during the ten- to twelve-hours described in this novel, he will be inspired and write The Song of the Virgin Child. It will be celebrated as a masterpiece. It will also be the first and last thing he ever writes. You never actually read the poem in its entirety… or even excerpts. Instead, Aira recounts this unusual day in Varamo’s life – seemingly disparate events which will culminate in a single poem.
Varamo has a place amongst literature’s eccentric characters. When we first meet him he is under stress, believing himself the recipient of counterfeit bills and convinced that he’ll be arrested if he tries to use or dispose of them. Things just get stranger from there as our protagonist is joined by a cast of equally outlandish characters. Their, and subsequently our, hold on reality seems more and more tenuous. The story is filled with absurdities – a botched taxidermy experiment, a regularity race (it’s real!), mysterious Voices – all accompanied by seemingly rational explanations. But as each strange event is explained away, another moves in to fill its place.
The races, said Cigarro, were fundamentally technical competitions, an opportunity for the fledgling automobile industry to test its innovations, and they appealed mainly to car fanatics rather than the general public, which made them rather esoteric. The race underway was a special case, because it had been promoted by the Central Administration as part of the festivities for the inauguration of the linked highways running right across the isthmus, connecting the cities of Colón and Panamá. In fact (and here he lowered his voice, as if revealing a state secret) the race had been planned, mainly, as a trap for anarchists. To them, a regularity race was a provocation; it’s strict regulation of time and space was bound to prove repugnant to the libertarian spirit.
Part of the frustration in reviewing a César Aira novel is that anything I write will be inadequate at conveying the pure delight to be found in his prose style, the way he transitions in and out of ideas and the overall narrative rhythm. How to fully appreciate “And the black sky crossed by streams of phosphorescent mercury was a vision worth the risk. The stars were an overwhelming surprise. But since each scene was linked to the one that had gone before, he continued to see the dominoes and dishes, twinkling among the constellations…” without reading it in context? Varamo poses an even greater challenge than usual – the narrative is perplexing, the plot (most of it filtered through our protagonist’s mind) difficult to untangle and a little slow getting off the ground. But – and I stress this – it’s so worth the effort. Every time I come to the end of an Aira novella I feel as if I’ve missed something important. Varamo was no different. Rather than finding it frustrating, I see it as an opportunity… a welcome excuse to go back to the first page and begin again.
Publisher: New Directions, New York (2012)
ISBN: 978 0 8112 1741 5