A Counterfeit Tale, Full of Value
(New Directions, 2012)
César Aira says he doesn’t revise, which, of course, seems like a ridiculous claim. But his oeuvre suggests otherwise: since 1975, the Argentine writer has published more than 80 works of stories, novels, and essays. Perhaps revising would stifle Aira’s urge to let his stories fly off in wild directions. He has spoken of the fuga hacia adelante, or “flight forward,” as his customary authorial mode. His characters wander about, get into messes, stumble upon conspiracies.
He’s allowed to do anything, apparently, except second-guess his instincts. He fashions convoluted scenarios that switch direction abruptly and often but always with the uncanny sensation of inevitability. His stories invest in the machinations of simultaneous realities and bizarre causation. Ultimately, an Aira tale is more about appreciating the magic thrumming underneath the surface of our lives than the moments that actually transpire.
His latest novel poses as a history of the titular government clerk who is paid his weekly salary in counterfeit bills, setting off a chain of events one evening that culminates in him writing the most celebrated Central American poem of the modern age later that night. Varamo has never shown interest in writing before this night, and he never revised his poem at all. Yet, the charm of the novella is borne from its outlandish premise:
The aim of this narrative is to lay out the events, as they unfolded, one after another, in a casual sequence, from the moment in which he took the bills up to the completion of the poem.
Our narrator, a second-rate academic and a big Varamo fan, suggests that there exists logical links between point A (those counterfeit bills) and point Z (an epic poem).
The effect is a comical perversion of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of ratiocination. In those stories, Detective Dupin solves mysteries with subtle clues—such as the expression on a suspect’s face—working through each logical causation until we arrive at the obvious location of a stolen letter, or the murderer of two women. For Dupin, every moment has a logical trigger; cause and effect makes sense.
In Varamo those links are absurd: embalming a fish in his basement leads him to taking a stroll and hearing auditory hallucinations, which in turn leads to a car race in which the winner is the driver who can maintain the steadiest speed through the checkpoints. Isn’t there a way to cheat this arbitrary fate? Varamo asks the race organizers:
If the driver had a list of the checkpoints and the times, couldn’t he just pass each point at the time he was supposed to, without worrying about traveling at a constant speed?
The trick to keeping the race interesting, of course, is that the checkpoints are unmarked. These “regularity races” are Aira’s wink to us: If you tear through my little novella, you’ll miss the real prizes. Where the story seems to flout whimsy and capriciousness it is actually a tightly-drawn tale. As Nabokov wrote in Pale Fire, what we have here is “not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.”
And so we must tap the brakes and proceed through Varamo at neither a torrid nor slow pace, but steadily in order to win some unnameable prize. Every hallucination deserves examination. Sometimes an embalmed fish is, if you can believe it, more than just an embalmed fish.
ContributorJames Leon Suffern