An insignificant Panamanian government employee named Varamo is paid his monthly salary, one day in 1923, in counterfeit money—money he recognizes as being false the moment it is placed into his hands. This law-abiding and fearful citizen of Colón, accordingly, is faced with an intense crisis for the first time in his life. Trying to spend the money will result in imprisonment, but how can he care for his ailing, slightly mad, Chinese mother, let alone himself, with no money?
In Varamo, his latest book to be translated into English and perhaps his most hilarious work to date, César Aira takes us through this first day and night of Varamo’s horrifying situation, wherein he is accosted by a local madman and a shady underground figure, witnesses the country’s Minister of the Interior suffer a car crash, and sits down to dine on a fish he was planning to embalm, already painted with chemicals, that his mother had cooked up for lack of better ingredients. He is also confronted with what he refers to as “the voices,” which speak meaningless sentences to him on a daily basis.
These voices slowly become untangled as the dizzyingly confused Varamo gets tangled up in a plot of codes and smuggling. Eventually, he runs into publishers at the local bar, men who are interested in having him write a book about his embalming experiences, promising him an advance precisely the amount of his counterfeited salary. Having never written a word before in his life, Varamo is skeptical, but has little choice: it is a perfect solution to his dilemma. So, after a mind-liberating walk through late-night Colón,
He sat down, and he wrote the poem. It is true that the verb "to write" covers a wide range of practices. In this case the author simply copied out all the papers he had put in his pocket since leaving the Ministry that afternoon. He did this in a cumulative fashion, without punctuation or divisions, without rearrangement, in lines of irregular length (the idea of prose, a late refinement in old civilizations, was utterly foreign to him). The order was determined by chance. The code book provided a basic structure, and he alternated the keys with literal transcriptions of the other notes. He had the advantage of having received contradictory instructions, which he followed with providential diligence of a beginner: Caricias had told him to change the keys to make them unrecognizable, and the publishers had advised him to leave the raw materials as they were.
Aira tells us at the beginning of the book that the result of this undertaking, which Varamo titles The Song of the Virgin Child, became the “celebrated masterpiece of modern Central American poetry,” a work “drilled into the minds of schoolchildren or regularly chosen for recitation in poetry competitions.” On top of his hilarious spoof of how great experimental work is created, the author also plays with notions of genre, arguing that his own narrative, since it is “true,” is not a fiction but a use of the third person to tell the “truth,” as a journalist might.
Of course, Aira’s work is not at all truthful, but an absurd series of “postmodern” lies pretending to represent reality. The joy of Varamo lies in the fact that as the fictional poet’s world collapses about him, forcing him to build up a new reality, the reader gets to tag along, to play with the character and author in the creation of a new universe made up of the accidental and coincidental elements of an imagined life. And isn’t that what the creative act is really all about?