Argentinean Author César Aira
Most traditional literature is somewhat like a series of nested matryoshka dolls: You come back out the way you go in. In the process, all unresolved issues are neatly resolved (one hopes), and one has experienced a real 19th century experience.
Well, that doesn’t seem to be happening any more, except perhaps in some whodunits. It certainly isn’t happening in the slim novels of César Aira, an Argentinean from Coronel Pringles who writes the way a Roomba vacuum cleaner robot cleans: He just moves in a straight line until he encounters a barrier that sends him off in another direction.
In Varamo, we are in the city of Colón in Panama some 20 years after the Panama Canal was built. Varamo is the name of a Chinese-Panamanian who works for one of the government ministries in Colón. The story begins when, as his pay, he is handed 200 counterfeit pesos which he at once recognizes and is afraid to cash. He walks to the cafe one evening and witnesses an accident in which one of the government ministers is severely injured. That makes him late to the cafe, where he runs into three pirate publishers who urge him to write a book, which Varamo gladly does. It turns out to become a Central American poetry classic: The Song of the Virgin Boy.
Along the way, he encounters other adventures, but this will do for now. In the last paragraph, Aira gives a kind of apologia for his own highly individualistic writing style:
The result was Varamo’s famous poem, except that it was less a result in itself than a way of transforming what had preceded it into a result. It produced a kind of automatism or mutual fatality, by which cause and effect changed places and became the same story. Far from diminishing the poem’s initial vigor, this circle intensifies it. Which is, in fact, what always happens. If a work is dazzlingly innovative and opens up unexplored paths, the merit is not to be found in the work itself, but in its transformative effect on the historical moment that engendered it. Novelty makes its causes new, giving birth to them retrospectively. If historical time makes us live in the new, a story that attempts to account for the origin of a work of art, that is, a work of innovation, ceases to be a story; it’s a new reality, and yet a part of reality as it has always been for everyone. Those who don’t believe me can go and see for themselves.
Now there’s a manifesto! Aira’s “new reality” has, with me, fallen on receptive ears. I have read every Aira book that I could get my hands on. They are all relatively short, but always succeed in defying any attempt at speed-reading. This Argentinean knows how to throw curve balls that bounce all over the place. Following their trajectory across space and time is not only great fun, but also profound, in a weird way.
Photo Credit: The above picture—a favorite of mine—comes from the Buenos Aires BAFICI website (dedicated to independent filmmakers).