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A vintage postcard from Panama (image via

Varamo is only the sixth novel by the Argentinian writer César Aira to be made available in English, but the premise already sounds like an Aira-parody: one night in Panama in 1923, a government employee without a literary bone in his body composes a future masterpiece of Central American poetry and, as often happens, never writes another word again.

Billed by the narrator as “an experiment in literary criticism,” Varamo documents the goings and doings of its eponymous hero — “a living cliché — a textbook case” — in the hours leading up the moment of composition. Varamo, a third-class clerk, finishes work and receives his salary only to realize, with horror, that the bills he’s been given are all counterfeit. Too timid to object at the outset, he spends part of the novel feeling like a character in a story by Kafka: “Of all the people in the world, why me?”

What ostensibly happens is this: Varamo leaves work, goes home, has dinner with his mother, goes back out, is persuaded by three pirate publishers to write a book about embalming animals, goes back home and, inexplicably inspired, writes “that celebrated masterpiece of modern Central American poetry,” The Song of the Virgin Child.

Now, because this is an Aira novel, and because Aira writes without revising the previous day’s work (he just pushes on to the next page, a method he calls “la fuga hacia adelante,” or, the flight forward), it goes without say that a lot of weird things happen that seem incidental to the main thrust of the narrative: Varamo spends a few pages amateur-embalming a fish which his mother then cooks for dinner; on his way to a café the newly minted poet witnesses a freak car crash that may have been a botched assassination attempt; at the apartment of the mysterious Góngoras sisters, he notices that the room is jammed with golf-clubs in expensive leather bags. At one point the narrator also seems to be commenting explicitly about Aira’s strange method of composition: “Pulling something out of nothing, straight after having pulled something different from the same teeming, variegated nothing … And so on, different every time, to keep it moving forward.”

A photo of César Aira.

There’s a catch, of course (there’s always a catch with Aira, isn’t there?): Varamo is not strictly the document of events preceding the composition of the poem; the novel deduces the events preceding the composition of the poem from the poem itself — hence the ‘experiment in criticism’ bit. But don’t worry, the narrator explains it all:

“The course of events that preceded the composition of the poem can be deduced from the text, in even greater detail, as one reads it over and over again. Perceptual data is recovered in this way, but also psychological binding elements, including memories, daydreams, oversights, uncertainties and even subliminal brain flashes. The treatment of the external conditions should be similarly inclusive: the succession can be progressively enriched with particles of reality, down to the subatomic level and beyond.”

What this amounts to, I gather, is a kind of extended joke on the idea of the autonomous text. The narrator defines avant-garde art as something that “permits the reconstruction of the real-life circumstances from which it emerged.” The more you can say accurately about the historical moment in which the work of art was conceived, the more avant-garde it is. Simple as that. In the case of Varamo’s unlikely masterpiece, the enterprising critic simply has to “translate each verse, each word, backwards, into the particle of reality from which it sprang.”

Ironically, Varamo’s own historical moment is reconstructed pretty sparingly; there’s some talk of the youth of the Panamanian nation (it gained its independence from Colombia in 1903), the construction of the Panama Canal, the importance of Rubén Darío, the father-figure of modern Latin-American letters. Beyond that, its pretense towards being a “strictly historical document” is skewered by the strange, improbable imagination of its author. Because in the end, for all his metafictional fronts and flings, César Aira is a wildly enjoyable teller of tall tales, a smart-ass Borgesian with a Balzac-complex (he’s written somewhere in the vicinity of seventy or eighty novels). What other writer do you know who can riff on “free indirect style,” the fate of Chinese immigrants in Panama, and the details of cooking a fish, all within the space of two pages in a novel that consists of just ninety?

César Aira’s Varamo (New Directions) is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.

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Morten Høi Jensen

Morten Høi Jensen is a freelance book critic. His writing has appeared in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Millions.

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