In the strange world of Latin American belles-letters, it is not altogether inconceivable that a classic of the canon could be written overnight, by a lowly bureaucrat, and by accident. After all, one of the continent's most celebrated avant-garde poets, Cesar Vallejo, utilised automatic writing techniques and is considered by some to be utterly incomprehensible. Then there's the Mexican Juan Rulfo, perhaps that country's greatest novelist, who climbed out of obscurity as a travelling salesman long enough to write his only two books over the course of a two years, living another three decades but never publishing again. Seen in this light, we can almost believe the narrator of César Aira's recently translated novel Varamo when he tells us that he will reconstruct the events leading up to the improbable composition of the great avant-garde poem The Song of the Virgin Child, the only literary work of an otherwise unremarkable Panamanian paper-pusher named Varamo.
The book purports to be a quasi-scientific investigation into how this "bolt from the blue" came into being. Aira has developed a reputation for making screwball conceits like this into delightful 100-page novels and has written some 80 of them since the 1970s, frequently veering into questions surrounding philosophy, authorship, improvisation, originality and narrative. But for all the intellectual weight they carry, the books remain light as spider's silk, being fun, fast, tricky reads.
Aira is deadpan as ever in Varamo, telling us in a purposely stilted, pseudo-scientific tone that understanding the creation of Song of the Virgin Child is simply a matter of "lay[ing] out the events as they unfolded, one after another, in a causal sequence". This sounds simple enough, but Aira is surely being coy, knowing as well as anyone that nothing in life is that easy to explain, surely not the mysterious process behind a singular artistic achievement by a man who had never previously taken up a pen to write literature.
Curiously, Aira makes no attempts to consciously link Varamo or his life to questions of high art. Sure, he'll tell us all about the strange things Varamo witnesses over the course of the day, but their connection, if any, to literary creation is left unexamined. This raises intriguing questions: Does Aira's narrator know what the heck he's talking about? Just how seriously should we be taking all this? And can this strange little novel really tell us anything about how literature comes into being?
The action kicks off when our literary-giant-in-the-making is paid one month's salary in the form of two counterfeit bills. Varamo suffers much anxiety in figuring out how to change them, fails, and heads home where he lives with his mother. He then partakes in his hobby, embalming, where he is trying to create a scene with a fish playing a piano. Somehow his dissections bring the fish back to life, though Aira never attempts an explanation and Varamo seems not to care. Later he'll witness a "race" where the drivers try to stay as close to a marked speed as possible and will have a run-in with government high officials.
Perhaps it is because Aira stays so close to Varamo's daily routine that this is one of the most carefully observed of his novels. Due credit must be paid to the translator, Chris Andrews, for putting Aira's quietly comic locutions into a well-tended English that maintains the compactness and freshness of the original. Each element Aira draws our attention to is placed into sharp focus before being discussed in short, entertaining digressions. For instance, a "poison-pen" letter received by Varamo's mother is described as "a little too typical, as if the author had simply wanted to conform to the rules of the genre without having anything definite to say and had filled the letter with classic phrases, which seemed to have been strung together at random, with the sole aim of producing the 'poison-pen effect'."