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by César Aira, Chris Andrews (Translator)

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The surprising, magnificent story of a Panamanian government employee who, one day, after a series of troubles, writes the celebrated masterwork of modern Central American poetry.
Unmistakably the work of César Aira, Varamo is about the day in the life of a hapless government employee who, after wandering around all night after being paid by the Ministry


The surprising, magnificent story of a Panamanian government employee who, one day, after a series of troubles, writes the celebrated masterwork of modern Central American poetry.
Unmistakably the work of César Aira, Varamo is about the day in the life of a hapless government employee who, after wandering around all night after being paid by the Ministry in counterfeit money, eventually writes the most celebrated masterwork of modern Central American poetry, The Song of the Virgin Boy. What is odd is that, at fifty years old, Varamo “hadn’t previously written one sole verse, nor had it ever occurred to him to write one.”
Among other things, this novella is an ironic allegory of the poet’s vocation and inspiration, the subtlety of artistic genius, and our need to give literature an historic, national, psychological, and aesthetic context. But Aira goes further still — converting the ironic allegory into a formidable parody of the expectations that all narrative texts generate — by laying out the pathos of a man who between one night and the following morning is touched by genius. Once again Aira surprises us with his unclassifiable fiction: original and enjoyable, worthy of many a thoughtful chuckle, Varamo invites the reader to become an accomplice in the author’s irresistible game.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Aira, author of more than 80 published books, returns with another slim story, this one about an ineffectual government clerk who, after wandering around 1923 Colón, Panama all night, sits down and in one fell swoop writes the most famous poem in the modern Central American canon. But Aira is less concerned with the result than he is with the events immediately leading up to its composition: an attempt to embalm a fish; a conversation with two reclusive sisters who live in the neighborhood; a "regularity rally," or race in which the winner is the driver who deviates least from a predetermined speed between start and finish. The book is structured around a series of chance encounters, while also giving Aira some asides on broader concepts like the nature of perception, the promises of narrative form, and human thought. We never get to read Varamo's great poem, and the story might strike some as dilatory and unfocused, but others will relish Aira's language ("The stars were an overwhelming surprise") and the simplicity of his set pieces, one of which serves as the book's last image and involves birds gently pecking at a small red candy stuck on the branches of a bush. (Mar.)
Michael Greenburg - The New York Review of Books
“An avant-garde literature that combines the impossible with the real, a literature in which every statement of fact suggests its opposite and even casual observations and plot twists are turned upside down.”
Aura Estrada - Boston Review
“Slim, cerebral, witty, fanciful, and idiosyncratic.”
Ben Raliff - The New York Times Book Review
“Varamo, like all the Aira books in translation, is charming and infuriating, built of plain prose that blooms without warning into carbuncular visions.”
The New Yorker
“Aira's prose can be slapdash, but the book teems with delightful, off-the-cuff metaphysical speculation.”
The Harvard Crimson

“Varamo,” translated by Chris Andrews, is a testimony to the fact that the backstory behind a seemingly fantastical myth is always worth exploring.

Quarterly Conversation
“The overriding impression of Varamo is one of facility that dips periodically into facileness. Aira encounters the elements of his story as Varamo stumbles upon his masterpiece, by chance, as objets trouvés, and enjoyable as it is to see each pulled in turn from the hat, even a short novel built on such a principle can’t help but demonstrate the principle’s limits. Flaubert, the presiding genius of literature as sealed artifact, once claimed that he took such endless pains with his style precisely because was not naturally gifted with words. Aira is a manifestly gifted writer who may find writing all too easy a job.”
The Rumpus
“The novel, in enacting the criticism it mocks, is playful and clever.”
The National
“Each element Aira draws our attention to is placed into sharp focus before being discussed in short, entertaining digressions. If anything, the book implies a distrust of the very notion of plot, a comfort with play, and that is why I feel it grasps something of value. Once again Aira has given us a series of memorable, highly interpretable images held together by gossamer strings of meaning.”
Alice Whitwam - Coffin Factory
“The latest English translation in Aira’s enormous corpus, Varamo accommodates his fondness for mixing metaphysics, realism, pulp fiction, and an attention to the raw strangeness of life’s ordinary details... The eccentricity of plot here is its own pleasure, but the slow, carefully written digressions it enfolds are what make the work such extravagant fun.”
Critical Mob
“With a light, almost hypnotic style, Aira creates an intriguing balance between realism and comedic absurdity.”
The Complete Review
Varamo is very much a book of ideas, with literary smoke and mirrors that raise questions focused specifically on (literary) form and creation.”
Boston Review
“Slim, cerebral, witty, fanciful, and idiosyncratic.”
Los Angeles Review of Books
“Aira's literary significance, like that of many other science fiction writers, comes from how he pushes us to question the porous line between fact and fantasy, to see it not only as malleable in history, but also blurred in the everyday. The engrossing power of his work, though, comes from how he carries out these feats: with the inexhaustible energy and pleasure of a child chasing after imaginary enemies in the park.”
Library Journal
Varamo, a fiftyish Panamanian bachelor civil servant, has just been paid 200 pesos in counterfeit currency and doesn't know what to do about it. So he wanders through the city of Colón, encountering numerous eccentrics, until he runs into three publishers in a café who urge him to write a book on his hobby, taxidermy. With no previous writing experience, he pens a poem, "The Song of the Virgin Boy," which ends up becoming one of the most celebrated masterpieces of Central American poetry. Instead of dealing with embalming, however, the poem is a re-creation of the events that happened earlier that day, pieced together from notes, an ironic apology of the writing craft. VERDICT This delectable novella by prolific Argentine author Aira constantly pulls the reader's leg, heightening the absurdity in a playful, desultory style reminiscent of magic realism. At about the novel's midpoint, the author directly intervenes by discussing his theory of narratology, the fruit of which he claims is in the reader's hand. For those who like writing in the vein of García Márquez and other masters of 20th-century Latin American literature.—Lawrence Olszewski, OCLC Lib., Dublin, OH

Product Details

New Directions Publishing Corporation
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4.80(w) x 6.80(h) x 0.40(d)

Meet the Author

Nominated for a Neustadt Award and shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, César Aira was born in Coronel Pringles, Argentina, in 1949. He has published at least ninety books.

The poet Chris Andrewsteaches at the University of Western Sydney, Australia, where he is a member of the Writing and Society Research Center. He has translated books by Roberto Bolaño and César Aira for New Directions.

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