The opening lines of César Aira’s Varamo (New Directions, 2012), translated by Chris Andrews:
One day in 1923, in the city of Colón (Panama), a third-class clerk, having finished work, and, since it was payday, passed by the cashier’s desk to collect his monthly salary, left the Ministry in which he was employed. In the interval between that moment and the dawn of the following day, ten or twelve hours later, he completed the composition of a long poem, from the initial decision to write it up to the final period, after which there were no further additions or corrections. The self-contained nature of the interval emerges more clearly still if we take into account the fact that never, in all his fifty years, had he written or felt any inclination to write a single line of poetry, and nor would he ever again. It was a bubble in time, in his biography, an exception without precedent or sequel. The action contained the inspiration, and vice versa, each nourishing and consuming the other, so that nothing was left over.I love that. Writing as a singularity, how utterly refreshing. (Is my fervor a sign of the doggedness of repeated entries here?) Aira notes how the resultant piece, “origin and apogee of the most daring and experimental avant-garde movement in the language,” a piece with the unlikely title of The Song of the Virgin Child, poses “insurmountable contextual problems . . . for critics and literary historians.”
What to do with a thunderbolt struck “out of nowhere”? Turns out “there is an explanation for everything in the world”—and its form is narrative. Aira: “To find the explanation in this case, we must remember that just as the episode had an end (the poem itself), so it had a beginning, and the two points correspond symmetrically, as an effect corresponds to its cause, or vice versa.” The beginning (and I suspect Aira is registering a kind of sly contempt for the “radical arbitrariness” of origin and upshot): that “monthly salary” Varamo collects is rendered in the form of two counterfeit bills. What follows is a Rube Goldberg machine of a plot, ad hoc and improvisatory. Among its workings: a car crash caused by a vehicle in a “regularity rally” (“the aim is to maintain a predetermined speed, and the winner is not the first to arrive, but whoever deviates the least from that speed between the start and the finish”), two mysterious sisters—the Góngoras—one with a prosthetic leg, who smuggle golf clubs into Panama (“the safest way . . . was to board a ship docked in Colón and disembark again soon afterward, walking with the aid of a ‘stick,’ which was, in fact, a golf club”), and a trio of publishers of pirated books, “paperback editions with garish, vulgar cover illustrations, printed on the cheapest paper and flimsily made,” who urge Varamo, an amateur embalmer, to write a book to be called How to Embalm Small Mutant Animals (“instructions were the way of the future, a poetry of instructions freed from the tyranny of results”). The farfetched and extemporaneous nature of the doings seems designed to hint at something like literature’s sempiternal exhaustion when confronted by its own inexhaustibility. Aira:
. . . one thing happened and it led on to the other; and the two were linked by a perfectly reasonable chain of causes and effects. There was, however, no reason for the beginning, or the end: their radical arbitrariness sealed off the sequence of events and set it apart, reinforcing its internal casual links with a cast-iron logic. Furthermore, the disparate nature of the two extremities (what relation could there be between a pair of counterfeit bills and a literary masterpiece?) led to an uncontrollable proliferation of intermediate steps. So the sequence was dense with meaning, but threatened from within by the infinite.The other choice (I think of Ashbery’s succinctly-tendered two ways of proceeding: to “put it all down” or “to leave all out”) is restraint, cunning (of the faux billets: “their illegal status called implicitly for silence and discretion”). What Aira’s novella—open, careening, gathering its material as it goes—admits with ease, integral to its certain aimlessness: literary criticism of a high order. Talking of the purported “landmark of Latin American avant-garde writing in the first decades of the twentieth century”—Varamo’s poem written in a single night (Aira, coyly, at the end of Varamo provides its date of composition, a single day: “December 15, 1999”), he writes:
The poem’s capacity to integrate all the circumstantial details associated with its genesis is a feature that situates it historically. It doesn’t possess that capacity by virtue of being an avant-garde work; in fact, it’s the other way around: it’s avant-garde because it makes the deductions possible. It can be said that any art is avant-garde if it permits the reconstruction of the real-life circumstances from which it emerged. While the conventional work of art thematizes cause and effect and thereby gives the hallucinatory impression of sealing itself off, the avant-garde work remains open to the conditions of its existence. And the more accomplished it is, the more confident the critic can be in restoring the antecedent events and thoughts.Or there’s the riff concerning improvising (a matter of feigning innocence, that is, proceeding “without intent”) and its impossibility:
. . . there was another, more fundamental problem: how to feign innocence. As well as being insurmountable, this difficulty was unfathomable. The idea was to simulate naturalness, in other words, to make it up as he went along. That might have seemed the easiest thing in the world, the paragon of easiness, but in fact there was nothing more difficult; intending to be natural was, in itself, contradictory and self-defeating. In his case, it was condemned to failure from the outset, because if he intended to improvise his course of action, he would have to act as if he were really improvising, and at the same time he would, also, really be improvising, which was no more feasible than moving in two opposite directions at the same time. Irrespective of intentions, each act (or gesture or attempt or instant) had to be followed by another, by any one of all the others. The improviser had a make a superhuman choice among all the possibilities, which, by definition, were so numerous that a lifetime would not suffice to count them or even to contemplate there range. And improvising meant, by definition again, that he didn’t have a lifetime at his disposal, or even a fragment of a life, but only an atom, a vanishing of time. Decisions, that is, choices and intentions, were nourished by time, but the premises of improvisation swallowed up all the available time, before the improvising could even begin. And appearances were against him, because whatever account he gave of his day, that story would presuppose time, and no one would believe that time had been annulled.One is returned into that infinite proliferatory “within” found between any two events, what Aira calls “the same teeming, variegated nothing . . .” A vertiginous and exhilarating space.