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Near the end of ‘Varamo’ – the latest novel by César Aira to make its way into English – the title character, an unmarried, fifty year-old civil servant, wanders into the company of some men who work in publishing. They urge him to write a book. Writing is “very easy” and can “be done very quickly”, they explain to Varamo, who’s never written before: “Do you have anything to do tonight? No? It shouldn’t take you three or four minutes to fill up a page, if you concentrate. That’s twenty pages an hour. In four or five hours you could finish off a decent little book.”
A decent little book, indeed. The joke is that Varamo will go home to write a “celebrated masterpiece of Central American poetry”, the “dazzlingly innovative” poem ‘The Song of the Virgin Child’, and that he’ll do so by stringing together words from scraps of paper left in his pockets, notes from a failed fish-embalming project, and code from a notebook he’s been asked to re-scramble. If it sounds fanciful or odd, that’s the point: Aira’s literary terrain, trod consistently and copiously in 80-some novels since 1975 (no one seems able to keep a proper tally) is all about stringing together sequences of unlikely events – and like Varamo’s poem, the results are often dazzling, and always odd.
‘Varamo’, published in Spanish in 2002, is the sixth of Aira’s “decent little books” (they’re usually around 100 pages) to be issued by New Directions in English translation; in 2010, New Directions’ President Barbara Epler declared Aira heir-apparent to Chilean dynamo Roberto Bolaño (also published by the press). Released this month in the US, ‘Varamo’ will join ‘An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter’ (2006), ‘How I Became a Nun’ (2007), ‘Ghosts’ (2008), ‘The Literary Conference’ (2010), and ‘The Seamstress and the Wind’ (2011) on Aira’s North American bookshelf. In the coming years, New Directions plans to release six more.
This is good news for English readers. Aira’s novels, or novellas, or nouvelles, or novelitas, as they’re varyingly classified, really are best when read in bulk. Each single book is almost too peculiar, too idiosyncratic, to stand on its own – as if Kafka had written ‘In the Penal Colony’ and nothing else. And this is Aira’s intention. Known as much for his method of production and the rate of his output as he is for any individual work, Aira claims as his predecessors process-obsessed avant-guardists like John Cage (“a musician…with cork in his ears”) and the Dadaists.
Alternately called “the continuum” and “a forward flight” (fuga hacia adelante), Aira’s chosen ‘procedure’ is this: every day, he sits in a café and writes a page by hand. He perfects it through the evening, but never, in the days that follow, goes back to make changes or revise. The result is a string of stories that are digressive and unpredictable, and uniformly so. Freed from the conventions of “high” literature – among them quality (what he calls “the well-made”) and narrative consistency – he relies instead on improvisation and surprise.
‘Varamo’, in this way, is a typical Aira affair: we meet our protagonist and are immediately swept into the random peregrinations that precipitate his penning of a major literary work: payday, buying candy from a street vendor, dinner with his mom. The events are both mundane and uncanny, often jumping between the two (he’s paid in counterfeit bills; the candy from the street vendor attracts a swarm of pecking birds; his mother cooks quasi-embalmed fish), and the novel, like all of Aira’s work, follows these conflicting whims until they reach an unlikely resolution – in this case, the writing of an avant-guard classic by a civil servant who fails at fish embalming.
What’s really unique about Aira’s output, considering the speed with which he ‘flies forward’ (seemingly by the seat of his pants), isn’t that he produces so much work, or that it’s fanciful and odd, but that what he’s produced forms a coherent body of work – and one that’s consistently enjoyable to read.
Born in 1949 in the Coronel Pringles, a small town 500km south-west of Buenos Aires, Aira spent years writing and publishing novelistic installments in relative obscurity – until 1998. That year, Random House Mondadori published ‘How I Became a Nun’ in Spain and out popped a literary career, Athena-like, fully-formed: Aira has gone on to publish over 50 more novels, some which had been written in the 80s and 90s (perhaps on scraps of paper stored in his pockets, like Varamo), and the rest produced since, at the disarming rate of two per year.
My favourites are those that juxtapose social reality with the absurd: like ‘Ghosts’, which manages to portray the life of a transient Chilean family in ‘80s Argentina against the sexual awakening of a teenage girl befriended by a band of naked, semi-visible phantoms. A similar feat is achieved in ‘How I Became a Nun’, where class anxiety and social unease permeate a novel about ice cream aversion and identity confusion in a six-year-old child, who, while narrating the book, is also already dead. Odd mixtures, sure, but Aira performs delightfully, without ever taking himself, or his reader, too seriously.
The six New Directions offerings all come from Aira’s prodigious pre-fame era. With a half-dozen more to come, here’s my request: give us some written on this side of the 20th century—after Argentina experienced its 2001 economic collapse. Since Aira’s procedure allows him to incorporate whatever is going on around him directly into his work (“if a little bird enters the café where I am writing…it also enters into what I’m writing”), I want to see him process a society unhinged and chaotic—you know, like ours is right now.
My suggestions: ‘La Villa’, an asburdist rendering of life in a downtown Buenos Aires Hooverville; or ‘Las noches de Flores’, which opens with an elderly couple taking up pizza delivery to make ends meet. Argentina seems to have made it through its difficult time in (mostly) one piece; perhaps a dozen “decent little books” by César Aira helped tip the scales toward recovery. Odder things have happened on the path to great literature.