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César Aira: Varamo (Varamo)

Aira outlines the basic story to us right at the beginning. A low-level civil servant in Colón, Panama, goes to collect his wages at the end of the month. Between that period and the following morning he writes a long poem in its entirety, without any corrections. Aira points out that never before in the previous fifty years of his life had he written a single verse of poetry nor had he ever thought of doing so. The poem is now considered one of the key works of modern Central American poetry and is called The Song of the Virgin Boy. The whole story is, of course, entirely fictitious. The book is an attempt to show what happens between the time he ends work and the next day, after he has written his poem.

The first problem Varamo faces is that he is paid with forged banknotes. Instead of rejecting them, he is too timid to raise the matter with the cashier and leaves with two forged notes to last him the rest of the month. He will continue to worry about this issue. Should he have a plan to surreptitiously pass them off as genuine or should he just wait to see what happens? He remains unsure. On the way home, he bumps into someone whom he recognises as a runner for the numbers game which he occasionally plays but his mother often plays. The man is also a driver for the ministry where Varamo works. We will come across him again, with other roles. The man gives him a peso note, owed from a game his mother had won. This might seem very little but it is too high a note for a street vendor from whom he buys some food. Varamo goes home, where he lives with his mother. (We later learn that she is, in fact, Chinese.) Varamo has a hobby – he is a taxidermist, which he uses to supplement his income. He currently has a plan to have a stuffed fish playing a small piano. However, he has to give up because he is unable to make a model piano and only realises, when it is too late, that fish do not have arms to play a piano. The fish, filled with his various chemicals, will become their dinner. After dinner, he plays dominoes with himself and listen to the voices that he regularly hears. He also thinks about the book he is going to write on embalming small animals.

Every evening he goes out to the café for a drink with the regulars. This evening is no different. However, he is delayed on the way there. At that time of night, there should be no cars at all on the streets but, to his surprise, not one but two appear and crash into one another. To his further surprise, one of the cars is driven by Cigarro, as we now learn his name, the numbers runner/driver we have met before. The car contains the Minister of Economic Affairs, who appears to be hurt. He is taken into the house of the Góngoras, two elderly ladies who live alone with their maid and who have known Varamo since he was a child. He discovers that they make their money by smuggling golf clubs into Panama. While there he learns why he hears the voices and stops a revolution, while finding out more about Cigarro. He then moves onto the café. As he is late, he talks not to his usual friends but to a group of pirate publishers. It turns out that they publish anything – originals and translations – and never pay royalties. They have armies of translators at their disposal, left over from the former workers on the Panama Canal. When he mentions his embalming book, they are very keen to publish it and even pay for it. He is very enthusiastic. On the way home, however, he will change his mind about what he is to write.

Once again, it is a superb book from Aira. It is relatively short – 124 pages in the Spanish text. Despite only taking place in a relatively short period of time, Aira packs so much into it, from the numbers game to the embalming, from the pirate publishing to the golf club smuggling, from the impending revolution to the Chinese mother and her problems. Yet, the story is told so well that we are gripped by the tale and how and why Varamo is going to write his poem, which we have known about since the beginning of the book. It is more and more becoming apparent that Aira is becoming one of the pre-eminent story tellers of our time and it is fortunate that New Directions are publishing many of his books in English.

Publishing history

First published by Anagrama in 2002
First published in English by New Directions in 2012
Translated by Chris Andrews