César Aira's Varamo
(New Directions, 2012: 89 pages)
reviewed by Cooper Renner

As light and breezy as it is, Varamo, the latest English translation of one of Aira's idiosyncratic novellas, is still, in a very loose way, not unlike W.G. Sebald's magisterial The Rings of Saturn, a ramble across eastern England which mirrors the tour of the narrator's mind and the vast amount of knowledge housed therein. Sebald is serious in the finest possible way, and the narrator's internal monologue becomes its own work of art. With Aira, likewise, his narrator's afternoon and evening walk across Colón, Panama, is the heart of the book and includes metaphysical ponderings along with observations of the surroundings. Aira's delightful narration is not, however, presumed to be art in itself, but rather the accounting of the creation of a singular Modernist masterpiece, central to Spanish language poetry. But in Aira's universe, one cannot approach such material without irony. The unintelligible "voices" which Varamo has heard for years, though only in a certain locale, are not irruptions from a world beyond or the insertion of the divine into his life, nor even the symptoms of schizophrenia, but rather the coded radio transmissions a pair of sisters employ in their illegal importation of golf clubs, and their code book becomes an essential ingredient in the composition of Varamo's one and only poem, when his goal had been only to assemble a quickie text about embalming animals, for which a trio of local publishers will pay him two hundred pesos. A worthy partner to Aira's The Literary Conference and Luis Fernando Verissimo's Borges and the Eternal Orangutans, Varamo invites the "literary" reader to lighten up and have a little fun without ever surrendering his intellect.