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Authors: César Aira

Varamo

BOOK: Varamo
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Varamo

César Aira

Translated by Chris
Andrews

A New Directions Paperbook Original

ONE DAY IN 1923, in the city of Colón (Panama),
a third-class clerk, having finished work, and, since it was payday, passed by
the cashier’s desk to collect his monthly salary, left the Ministry in which he
was employed. In the interval between that moment and the dawn of the following
day, ten or twelve hours later, he completed the composition of a long poem,
from the initial decision to write it up to the final period, after which there
were no further additions or corrections.
Th
e
self-contained nature of the interval emerges more clearly still if we take into
account the fact that never, in all his fifty years, had he written or felt any
inclination to write a single line of poetry, and nor would he ever again. It
was a bubble in time, in his biography, an exception without precedent or
sequel.
Th
e action contained the inspiration,
and vice versa, each nourishing and consuming the other, so that nothing was
left over. Even so, this episode would have remained private and secret had its
protagonist not been Varamo, had it not produced that celebrated masterpiece of
modern Central American poetry,
Th
e Song of the Virgin
Child
.

Th
is enigmatic poem
(published in book form just a few days later, thus consolidating its status as
a legendary bolt from the blue), origin and apogee of the most daring and
experimental avant-garde movement in the language, has been repeatedly described
as an inexplicable miracle because of the insurmountable contextual problems it
poses for critics and literary historians.

But there is an explanation for everything in the world.
To find the explanation in this case, we must remember that just as the episode
had an end (the poem itself), so it had a beginning, and the two points
correspond symmetrically, as an effect corresponds to its cause, or vice versa.
Th
e cause, as suggested already, intervened
when Varamo, having finished his day’s work, went to the cashier’s desk to
collect his salary. And what made this a beginning, the beginning of something
that had, as yet, no form or name, was that on this occasion he was paid with
counterfeit money. (
Th
e sum of two hundred pesos
was given to him in two one-hundred peso bills.)

Th
e aim of this narrative
is to lay out the events as they unfolded, one after another, in a causal
sequence, from the moment at which he picked up the bills to the completion of
the poem. Both extremities of the sequence were equally foreign to the usual run
of his thoughts. He had never handled, or seen, a counterfeit bill. He was quite
capable of imagining the forgery of money, but nothing in his personal
experience or that of his associates had ever led him to consider it as a real
possibility. Similarly, he had never written, or read, or given any thought to
poetry, or any other literary genre, for that matter. But one thing happened and
it led on to the other; and the two were linked by a perfectly reasonable chain
of causes and effects.
Th
ere was, however, no
reason for the beginning, or the end: their radical arbitrariness sealed off the
sequence of events and set it apart, reinforcing its internal causal links with
a cast-iron logic. Furthermore, the disparate nature of the two extremities
(what relation could there be between a pair of counterfeit bills and a literary
masterpiece?) led to an uncontrollable proliferation of intermediate steps. So
the sequence was dense with meaning, but threatened from within by the
infinite.

Varamo left the Ministry consumed by anxiety. He had
realized that the bills were counterfeits even as the teller was handing them
over with mechanical movements that he had repeated thousands of times. But he
hadn’t known how to react and was still in the grip of that quandary. What
should he do with this money, which represented the sum total of his purchasing
power for the duration of a month? His bureaucratic mentality had prevented him
from responding promptly, before he touched the bills, and now that he had put
them in his pocket it was too late. He had felt that their illegal status called
implicitly for silence and discretion. Like nearly all public servants, he
didn’t do anything special to earn his salary, so he thought of it as a kind of
gift, and all his instincts had told him to take the money, to keep his head
down and his mouth shut. In any case it was a miserable amount, a mere pittance
doled out by the state to those privileged, middle-class citizens who were
incapable of productive work. But now, of course, he could end up under a
different rubric of the national budget: if he were caught using counterfeit
money, he’d be thrown into prison. He had literally no idea what to do, and he
could barely walk; the few hundred yards to his house seemed like a journey all
the way around the world. What could he do? What could he do? He couldn’t even
imagine possibilities.
Th
e situation was too
unfamiliar. Up until then counterfeit bills had been unheard-of in Panama. And
new bills were released very gradually into the country’s slow-moving economy.
But if this predicament really was entirely new, how could he have grasped it
immediately, with all its ramifications?
Th
ere
was only one explanation: this was the reactivation of an archetypal situation,
deeply imprinted in the brain, even the brain of a man as inexperienced as this
pen pusher. Which also explained why it was so overwhelming, because it gave him
cause to wonder: Of all the people in the world, why me?

His paralysis notwithstanding he had kept moving and was
now in the street.
Th
e Palace of the Ministries,
from which he had emerged, faced onto the city’s central square.
Th
e last rays of sun lit up the plumes of the palm
trees, in whose mercifully cool shade a busy crowd was milling. Waves of office
workers were leaving the government buildings around the square and crossing it
in all directions; there were couples meeting, noisy schoolboys and girls
hanging around, old people taking the air, children hurrying to finish their
games before they had to go home. He too had to cross the square, but first he
had to cross the street, which he did with care: it was the moment when the
drivers of the senior public servants started up their cars and engaged in all
kinds of maneuvers to secure the most convenient positions for their bosses.
Th
e din they made was deafening, but there
was also the multitudinous buzz of hundreds of voices and cries, and the chorus
of the birds in the trees making their usual evening racket. Suddenly, a high,
sustained note was added to all that noise; Varamo scarcely needed to register
the sound to know what it was. It made him look up and across the square to the
long central avenue, where he could see that that ceremony of lowering the flag
had indeed begun. Opposite the Palace of the Ministries, on the other side of
the square, was the Ministry of the Interior, and every afternoon at exactly
five o’clock a squad of cadets issued from its gates and proceeded to lower the
flag that they had hoisted at the break of day, in an identical but inverted
ceremony.
Th
e slow ascent or descent was
accompanied by the sustained bugle note that was now setting the tone for the
general cacophony.
Th
at high-pitched single note
felt very intimate and close, detached from the soldiers who, seen from a
distance, looked like miniatures because of their garishly colored uniforms, the
inhuman, metallic rigidity of their postures as they stood at attention, and the
impeccable formality of their grooming — not a hair out of place — in striking
contrast to the tropical exuberance of everything around them.

As Varamo crossed the street, carefully watching the
cars, which were moving very slowly but in all directions, one of them reversed,
then lurched forward and even seemed to move sideways around him, almost as if
it were trying to block his way. It was one of the Hispano-Suizas imported many
years before by the French, a vast black machine, eight yards long, sputtering
and honking and apparently out to get him. Because of the nervous strain he was
under he started in fright, as if a strange mechanical monster had chosen him
for its prey. But as he was making up his mind to go around it and do whatever
was necessary to reach the safety of the sidewalk (he was about to break into a
run), he noticed that the driver, whose window he was facing, was calling out.
He froze.
Th
e driver was addressing him, and
must have been trying to approach him before; that was why the car had been
making those strange movements, which Varamo had rendered even more bizarre by
attempting to continue on his way. He greeted the man with a nervous smile, and
as soon as he recognized him was assailed by a range of new fears.
Th
e drivers who worked for the Ministries formed a
sort of brotherhood: they took bets on the last two or three numbers of the
lottery, and offered credit to office workers like him. When it came to his
gambling debts Varamo suffered from serious amnesia, so there was always a
chance that he would be reminded of one at the most unexpected moment. It was a
likely enough scenario, because the drivers would have known that it was payday
and that he was bound to have cash in his pocket. Except that the cash . . . But
no: when he finally understood what the driver was saying, he realized that it
was the other way around.
Th
e fellow had
winnings to deliver, not Varamo’s, but his mother’s. She was an inveterate
gambler and when she came downtown, as she did every day, to shop or chat with
her friends, she never missed an opportunity to “play” the numbers that she had
dreamed up or worked out.
Th
is time she had won
something, and the driver wanted to entrust the prize to her son. It was
somewhat irregular to use an intermediary, but the irregularity of the whole
operation meant that every so often it was suddenly imperative to pay all the
debts and recoup all the loans, to wipe the slate clean and start over. Too
relieved to protest, Varamo stretched out his hand and took what the
entrepreneurial driver was offering him.

Only then did the massive automobile stop heaving forward
and backward and allow him to proceed in a straight line to the sidewalk. And
only when he got there did he look at what he was nervously gripping in his hand
and see that it was a faded one-peso note, so old and worn that it was beyond
creasing, enfolded in a sheet of paper, a page from a notebook. On this sheet
the driver had written the winning numbers, followed by the unsuccessful
combinations, and the balance of losses and gains. Varamo was accustomed to
serving as a go-between for his gambling mother, so he barely bothered to glance
at the writing before putting the paper into his pocket and forgetting all about
it. But it was a curious document, and would have left the uninitiated observer
in a state of perplexity. For a start, there wasn’t a single number, although it
was all about sums of money. As a precautionary measure, the drivers used a
code, in which each number was represented by a word.
Th
e sheet of paper had the innocent look of an incoherent letter,
written in clumsy upper case. Tables of examples had been copied out for the
barely literate drivers, but they reproduced the words from memory, with every
imaginable kind of error. If Varamo had been betting (as he sometimes did), he
would have ignored this balance sheet and trusted to the driver’s honesty, but
he knew that his mother spent a lot of time deciphering that gobbledygook and
would not be satisfied until she had confirmed that every bet tallied with her
original intentions and with the dictates of chance.

With his hand still in his pocket he looked up, and the
light washed over him, like a holy bath. Light was what made the world work; the
world was Colón; Colón was the square. Light dissolved the worries created by
its dark twin, thought. Why think? Why build a prison of problems when the
solution was as simple as opening one’s eyes? On the one hand light dissolved,
and on the other it condensed: its action had produced those colored statues
known as plants, people, animals, clouds and the earth. It was the time when
everyone went out, when everyone came downtown to meet, and all eyes opened,
those of the living and those of the dead. Every leaf on every tree corresponded
to a human footprint, and the evening’s transparent labyrinths led to happiness.
But Varamo had those two damn bills in his pocket, like two bat’s wings fanning
a velvety darkness; they weighed him down like thoughts that he still had to
think. Out there, all around him, was life, but he couldn’t live it! Changing
two bills should have been the easiest thing in the world, but he couldn’t even
start to plan a course of action. He was drowning in a glass of water, terrified
of slipping toward the dark pulsation of ideas, as if it meant that he would
lose the visible and the real forever. He took his hand out of his pocket and
with a futile gesture tried to grasp the floating cell of light. He took a step
and thought: Why did this have to happen to me? Why me?
Th
ere were hundreds of men, women and children milling around on the
square and in the head of every one, an iridescent brain seemed to be flashing
out the mocking refrain, “Not me,” “Not me.”

He felt a little dizzy, a little out of sorts, which
wasn’t surprising given the circumstances. He stopped and looked ahead with eyes
half closed. In front of him, almost as far as he could see, stretching away on
both sides of the central avenue and right around the square in fact, was an
unbroken row of indigenous women sitting on the ground with their merchandise
laid out on rugs.
Th
ey sold everything, from
fried food to golden earrings. Predictably, his blood pressure had fallen, and
he needed a snack to give himself a boost. He went up to one of the women,
greeted her, stood there for a moment examining her wares, and finally pointed
to a piece of red candy in the shape of a die. She wrapped it in a square of
paper, and he leaned forward to take it. He unwrapped it straight away, put the
paper in his pocket so as not to litter the sidewalk, and held the little red
cube between the thumb and index finger of his right hand. He was so distracted
that it took him a moment to remember that he had to pay; then, twisting
awkwardly, he began to rummage in his pockets with his left hand. But how could
he pay? He had no coins . . .
Th
en he remembered
the one-peso bill that the driver had given him. He held it out to the woman.
She refused it with a look of horror on her face. A peso was too much! She had
no change. Didn’t he have anything smaller? He shook his head, despondently. For
a moment he was tempted to show her one of the hundred-peso bills, but then he
felt that it would be unwise, not to mention the difficulty of finding them with
the wrong hand and extracting them from his pocket. In the end she snatched the
peso, having decided to activate a system for obtaining change to which the
necessities of trade had accustomed the street vendors.
Th
e instrument of this operation, a crippled man, was already
approaching, as if alerted by a special instinct. Although his limited
mobility would have seemed to render him unfit for such a task, he actually
earned his living in this way, which goes to show that, in society, even the
smallest necessity can provide a means of support for someone. Holding the bill
in his hand, he walked away along the row of Indian women, tottering on his
debilitated legs, lurching about and swinging his arms wildly to recover his
precarious balance. As he addressed them, the women complained and kicked up a
fuss, but roughly one in five helped him out as best she could, and so the peso
was gradually divided into smaller and smaller sums. He had to go almost all the
way to the corner, and while the candy vendor was waiting, just to pass the
time, she remarked on how much work it was for all of them, providing change: a
Sisyphean task, because whatever they did, at the close of trading, it came to
nothing, and they had to start all over again the next day.

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