Sunday, March 4, 2012

Cause & Effect: César Aira’s Varamo

César Aira’s Varamo is a wonderful Rube Goldbergesque novella, an elegant and humorous conglomeration of seemingly incongruous actions, consequences, and objects that combine to show the reader how a third-class clerk in Panama named Varamo receives his pay in counterfeit money and comes to write a “masterpiece of modern Central American poetry, The Song of the Virgin Child” by the next dawn. I read Varamo in Chris Andrews’s translation.

Colón, Panama, in 1910. Varamo takes
place in 1923.
Aira’s story examines creativity and representation, following Varamo, a civil servant lacking special job skills, as he goes home after receiving the fake money: at home he works on a taxidermy project involving a fish and, eventually, uses his notes about the fish as a basis for his poem. (Original title: How to Embalm Small Animals.) At the end of the book, we find truth as the “raw material” for fantasy plus some peculiar observations on permanence. Varamo’s city, Colón, for example, remains as long as he does, and Varamo discovers that a die-shaped piece of candy he had stuck to a branch hours before remains stuck, despite having been pecked, daintily, by birds.

The fish has a stranger fate, and it’s interesting to see the poor thing as the object of two creative projects. The first is an attempt to make the fish appear, in death, as something more than it had been in life: a piano-playing fish. Then, if I understand this correctly, the chronicle of Varamo’s work on the fish becomes, through transformations involving random papers and a Rosetta Stone-like document that Varamo obtains through a chance meeting, the famous poem.

I found Varamo particularly fun because Aira suffuses his story with mentions of chance, accidents, improvisation, anarchists, literary genre, and cause and effect. Two examples:
The poem’s capacity to integrate all the circumstantial details associated with its genesis is a feature that situates it historically.
Like all adults, he was afraid of accidents. What dismayed him most about them was the temporal constant between the instant, or fraction of an instant, in which an accident could occur, and the long months or years required to repair its effects, if indeed they were reparable and didn’t last a lifetime.
I enjoyed Varamo very, very much, perhaps most for the lovely absurdities of its portrayal of the (or maybe “a”?) so-called writing process, a term I fought when I attended workshops at writing conferences years ago. For me, writing—and now translating—has never felt like an explainable process, other than certain mechanical actions, like sitting in a chair and applying fingers to a keyboard. I don’t believe in ethereal muses, either, but I do believe in cause and effect in the form of a myriad of mental processes, most of which occur rather randomly and quickly, (only, alas, to be forgotten, making me wonder how I (I?!) came up with my final drafts) that lead me to choose words that come together to create seemingly reasonable English-language versions of Russian texts. I don’t know Chris Andrews’s stance on any of this but I thought his Varamo established a voice that meshed nicely with the novella’s content, a voice that I looked forward to reading.

Disclosures: I picked up a copy of Varamo from publisher New Directions at BookExpo America in 2011. Thank you! I always enjoy speaking with New Directions about literature in translation.

Up Next: Anna Funder’s All that I Am. (My time for English-language reading has been at a new low in recent months because I’m teaching a college course this semester… but spring break is on the way!)

Photo Credit: Library of Congress, via Wikipedia.