Varamo by César Aira (translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews)

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

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The Review: Looking Forward to Translations in 2012

As the gears of the Mayan calendar slowly grind to a stop, I find it’s best to keep our minds off the impending apocalypse.  And what better distraction than a list of books from around the world – all due to be published before November, of course.  (You know, just in case you’re stockpiling early and have some room leftover in your end-of-the-world backpack).

February

Varamo by César Aira (translated from the original Spanish), published by New Directions – In the interest of full disclosure: I’ve already read this one and can’t wait to share!  I’ve been completely hooked on Aira since reading Ghosts a few months ago.  And it’s not just the prose and quirky stories (which are, of course, wonderful).  The New Directions editions are small, 5″ x 7″ paperback books with lovely covers that inspire book lust of the best kind. I’m slowly building a collection of all their Aira titles.

March

The Cyclist Conspiracy by Svetislav Basara (translated from the original Serbian), published by Open Letter Books – I’ve been eying this book in the Open Letter catalog for over six months.  It’s finally coming out in March.  What’s the draw?  There’s a Sherlock Holmes connection and a wacky science fiction component.  Here’s a bit of description from the Open Letter website: 

The Cyclist Conspiracy tells the tale of a secret Brotherhood who meet in dreams, gain esoteric knowledge from contemplation of the bicycle, and seek to move in and out of history, manipulating events…

April

Memoirs of a Porcupine by Alain Mabanckou (translated from the original French?), published by Soft Skull Press – To tide us over while we wait, impatiently, for Black Bazar to come the U.S.  (it’s currently available in English through Serpent’s Tail in the UK).  Not that I’m complaining.  I’m more than happy to content myself with this novel, which won the Prix Renaudot.  It’s the story of a young Congolese boy who discovers his “spirit animal” is a porcupine.  The two become partners in crime – committing acts of violence and murder.  As the title suggests – Memoirs of a Porcupine is the porcupine’s confession as to the part he played.

Children in Reindeer Woods by Krístin Ómarsóttir (translated from Icelandic), published by Open Letter Books – I discovered this novel while I was compulsively checking the release date of The Cyclist Conspiracy on Open Letter Books’ website.  A fable, reminiscent of Italo Calvino, it’s about a small girl named Billie who discovers ‘Children in Reindeer Woods’. A “temporary home for children”.  But the home is in the center of a war zone.  When the home is attacked and everyone killed, Billie must learn to live with a troubled soldier turned farmer.

May

Manual of Painting & Calligraphy by Jose Saramago (translated from Portuguese), published by Mariner – Saramago’s first novel.  And, really, if I need to say more than that…

The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (translated from Persian), published by Melville House – I am so excited about this novel!  Nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize, written by a prolific Iranian author, The Colonel is described as taking place “over the course of a single night, the novel follows the Colonel as he pays a bribe to recover his daughter’s body and then races to bury her before sunrise”.  I’ve been wanting to dive into Melville House’s catalog for ages.  And after reading Lisa’s review over at ANZ Litlovers I knew I had to read it.  Challenging and intriguing – that’s a combination I can’t walk a way from.

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Last but not least – I don’t know when these two books are coming out in the U.S…. or who’ll be publishing them… or if they’ll be here in time… All we can do is cross our fingers and keep our eyes open.

Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos (original Spanish), published by Central Books  And Other Stories in the UK    Update:  Thanks to @andothertweets and @FSG_Books we now know that Down the Rabbit Hole comes out in the U.S. in October 2012, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers (original German), published by Random House Germany

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Poems from the Book of Hours by Rainer Maria Rilke

Put out my eyes, and I can see you still;
slam my ears to, and I can hear you yet;
and without any feet can go to you;
and tongueless, I can conjure you at will.
Break off my arms, I shall take hold of you
and grasp you with my heart as with a hand;
arrest my heart, my brain will beat as true;
and if you set this brain of mine afire,
upon my blood I then will carry you.

Explanations and apologies first.  It has been a bit hectic around here.  What with a trip to France, a new puppy and working on an adoption application, BookSexy has suffered from neglect.  Fortunately, things are now settling down, so I’m pleased to say that there will be no more interruptions.

Seeing Paris was a lifelong dream.  Visiting Shakespeare & Co. was a pilgrimage.  And Rainer Maria Rilke’s Poems from the Book of Hours, published by New Directions, made it a triple play. The cover is soft green textured paper with french flaps and gold embossing.  The book opens with a preface by Ursula K. Le Guin followed by an introduction by the translator Babette Deutsch.  The poems are printed with the original German on the left page followed by the English translation on the right.  I love this book.  The presentation is as beautiful and thoughtful as the words within.

I discovered Rilke, like many people, when I was young (Le Guin tells a funny story about her own first encounter  with the poet’s works and subsequent enthusiasm).  Rilke is one of those authors who, if you connect to his writing, the connection stays with you for life.  I was originally drawn to his prose: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and Letters to a Young Poet.  I re-read these two books every few years.  The poetry came to me late and my response to it has always been lukewarm.  The truth is that I bought Poems from the Book of Hours as much for its cover as I did because of name recognition.

The Book of Hours, which I believe was a larger work from which the poems in the New Directions edition were selected, was Rilke’s first published book of poetry.  It was completed  in parts during the years of 1899, 1901 & 1903. The poems were written as meditations, conversations between the poet &  God (the original edition bore the subtitle: Love Poems to God). It is religious, but in a way that very much reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.  Like Dickinson addressing her anonymous “Master”, the subject matter of Rilke’s poems frequently appears secular in nature.   Lines like: “No, my life is not this precipitous hour through which you see me passing at a run” do not scream God!  Instead, the poems focus on their author’s preoccupations.   Rilke writes about youth and mortality, human isolation, spirituality; not about organized religion.  In fact, I wouldn’t have made the connection to God at all if the preface & introduction hadn’t both pointed me in that direction.

There are basically two kinds of poetry.  The first freezes a moment in time and then explores it from every angle.  The other, the type of poem Rilke writes, takes an abstract concept or emotion and solidifies it into something tangible.  The result can be a poem like the one I opened the post with.  The last line of which, “upon my blood I then will carry you” demonstrates the value in subtlety.  The choice of the word “upon”, rather than “in” is significant.  Its use highlights the isolation between the the poet and who he addresses his poem to.  For Rilke individual consciousness is a bridge which cannot be crossed.  It is an idea that he struggles with and returns to again and again.  Always with a quiet thoughtfulness, which the translator manages to convey while still retaining the directness of  the original German language.  (Excellent work Babette Deutsch).

If I have one criticism of Poems from the Book of Hours it is that the cover flap, the preface and the intro all stress that the poems the book contains are only examples of his early, immature work.  That these poems are not Rilke’s best and were written before he’d fully developed as a poet.  This is a huge pet peeve of mine.  Please don’t tell me that what I’m about to read is mediocre.  I believe that all criticisms should be put at the end of a book.  Allow me, the reader,to form my own opinions without anonymous influence.  Because if you delve into Poems from the Book of Hours  without preconceptions,  to my mind it holds its own against Rilke’s other works.

***A quick note on New Directions Publishing Co.  I was familiar with the name, but hadn’t realized what beautiful editions they put out until after I’d googled the company.  They also have an impressive catalog of authors.  If you haven’t already familiarized yourself with their offerings, it’s definitely worth checking out their website.


Publisher:  New York, New Directions Books (2009).
ISBN:  978 0 8112 1853 5

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