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Varamo by César Aira
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Varamo (1999)

by César Aira

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Another brilliant-but-brief piece of philosophical fiction from Aira. This was the last English-translation of his that I read (hopefully there are many more to come), and like the others that ND has produced, it has a nice mixture of realism, fantasy, and philosophy. Aira tells us the premise of the story early, within the first couple pages, and then produces a detailed unfolding of the story. He crafts the story so carefully, foreshadowing events within the first few pages, and then waiting until the final few to make the connection.

In his typical realist mode, he uses a government clerk--Varamo--as his protagonist, and the story revolves around how Varamo comes to write a poetic masterpiece over the period of a day. There are many philosophical meanderings which both foreshadow future events and spell out the points he is making in the story. The novel is almost a statement of the author's self-deprecation, or at least a statement about the publishing 'industry' (which the author may or may not consider himself part of). The way Varamo comes to his literary success is both funny and sad.

Aira does such a wonderful job of writing about such banal details, yet making these details seem almost other-worldly. The story itself is not very interesting, but by the connections he makes between the events told and the abstract ideas these events reveal, he creates something profound. And of course, his storytelling is excellent. ( )
  jantz | Jan 1, 2017 |
The back cover of this short novella compares it to Borges, which seems to be a common comparison among Argentine authors, at least the ones more available in English translation. Although if you had asked me, I would have said the book was 80 percent Chesterton (of The Man Who Was Thursday), 15 percent Nabokov (of Pale Fire), and at most 5 percent Borges. And a reasonably well executed version of that.

It describes less than twenty-four hours in the life of a Panamanian civil servant in the 1930s, beginning with his getting paid in counterfeit currency and ending with his writing what the novella describes as the greatest Central American poem. The book explains that this entire story is derived from textual evidence from the poem itself, often a single word or syllable, which allow the precise reconstruction of the sequence of events that resulted in the composition of the book itself. A sequence that includes a bizarre but memorable car "race", descriptions of golf club smugglers, the revelation of an underground anarchist society, and much more in a paranoid, hallucinatory vision. But it all has an internal logic. All that is missing (contra Pale Fire) is the poem itself. ( )
  nosajeel | Jun 21, 2014 |
César Aira’s Varamo is a reconstruction of the events that lead a lowly civil servant to the creation of a cultural masterpiece. It is an exploration on the source of inspiration, reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’ penchant for turning the abstract discussion of art into the mechanics of a plot. A sort of adventure that is played out on a Pynchonian stage.

Aira presents this story as an essay written in the style of a fictional narrative. The narration even muses on its own use of the free indirect style. A technique that allows the reader into the consciousness of the artist, baring witness to the creative process as it occurs in the mind. An impossible accessibility that our narrator explains is possible because of the vastness of the resulting masterpiece. An epic poem that captures the inspiration of its own creation.

The events take place in the span of ten or twelve hours, beginning at the end of the workday, as Varamo picks up his weekly pay from the government and discovers that the bills are counterfeit. An alienating moment in which the broader chaos of Cólon (Panama) selects him for solitary persecution, inciting a chain of events that lead Varamo, a man who still lives with his mother, and who has never “written or felt any inclination to write a single line of poetry,” to create the masterwork of Central American letters.

The bridge between these two moments is composed of the daily, insignificant agonies of a Kafkaesque individual that is lost among the masses. Among these crowds, he meets the strange characters that roam the margins of the greater historical movements happening in Panama. ( )
  ElectricCereal | Mar 25, 2014 |
This completes my reading of all Aira's books in English translation, as of February 2012. I am disappointed to see how, when the books are read in quantity, the strangeness of any one or two of them diminishes. This is partly the effect of magic realism, which decreases in magic as the magic proliferates. (Soon everything is indulgent and secular.)

It's also the effect of the lack of rules he imposes on himself: that lessens my engagement. In the end, I'd prefer he be stricter on himself. More like Perec, even. This may be my last of his books. ( )
  JimElkins | Feb 12, 2012 |
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One day in 1923, in the city of Colón (Panama), a third-class clerk, having finished his 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.
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"Varamo concerns a day in the life of a hapless government employee. After being paid by the ministry in counterfeit money, our unfortunate bureaucrat, Varamo, wanders around all night, then sits down and writes the most celebrated masterwork of modern Central American poetry, The Song of the Virgin Boy. What is odd is that Varamo, at fifty years old, 'hadn't previously written one sole verse, nor had it ever occurred to him to write one.'"--P. [4] of cover.… (more)

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