Novel set in post pandemic Galveston
Genre(s): Fiction, Historical
One day, before going home to the house he shares with his Chinese-born mother, Varamo is paid his monthly salary in counterfeit money. Instantly recognizing the problem, he is paralyzed with the fear that he will be turned in for possessing illegal tender. Facing a month of starvation, he takes comfort in his hobby: embalming. His current project is a fish playing the piano. His mother cooks the fish for their dinner, even though he has applied to it tartaric acid, carpenter’s glue, brilliantine and vitriol.
After dinner Varamo makes his habitual short walk to the local cafe, and as usual he hears voices uttering unintelligible codes and formulas. On the way, he witnesses a car crash involving the nation’s treasurer. During a tense interlude at the home of the driver’s girlfriend, where a doctor works to revive the treasurer, he takes part in conversations about conspiracies and black-market golf clubs. He is given a written copy of the strange codes and formulas that his voices have been reciting: it takes too long to explain here, but the codes have to do with the golf clubs, and he’s been hearing them thanks to a wax-cylinder phonograph near an open window.
Finally arriving at his destination – “ahead of him, at the end of the street, the cafe shone like a carbuncle” – Varamo meets three book publishers. (It seems Colón has become a hub of international black-market fiction.) The pirate editors, eager to expand their catalogs with all kinds of ephemera, persuade Varamo to write a book about embalming, and offer him as an advance the exact sum of his monthly salary. He goes home and more or less invents a new style of literature, transcribing the codes, as well as everything else we’ve seen him put in his pocket since the end of his workday, in random order and in lines of irregular length. The manuscript is published and becomes the “celebrated masterpiece of modern Central American poetry,” ridiculously called “The Song of the Virgin Child.”
Ben Ratliff NY Times Book Review
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