This new book by New Directions places side-by-side two separate and very different little novels by acclaimed (but still relatively obscure) Argentine surrealist author César Aira. This packaging decision was artistic as much as logistical, I think: there are, as the blurb points out, definite thematic continuities between The Little Buddhist Monk and The Proof, including corporate influence on culture, misogyny in various forms, and the interplay between the two; but it also draws attention to the fact that Aira’s books are not meant to function as separate universes, but as different windows into the same world. And that world is always, of course, our world: the real world, inexplicable and disconnected and entirely without the cause-and-effect relationships that we so desperately want to find. These are not comforting stories, in that sense – there is drama and tension and “plot,” but not in an escapist, read-it-on-the-airplane way.
Not escapist, but definitely transporting. The Little Buddhist Monk follows the titular character as he guides a French artist couple around his native Korea. In perfect Aira style, they witness extraordinary phenomena and have wildly philosophical conversations along the way. The Proof is similarly grounded in environment, taking place in Aira’s own neighborhood in Buenos Aires, and focuses on the cascade of events that follows two lesbian punks’ attempt to pick up the protagonist, Marcia. The punks, Mao and Lenin, are a seductive enigma for Marcia, and for us as well – and they remain so right up until the last page. Neckbreaking swerves in narrative focus and direction are on display in both these pieces: the same paragraph can jump from abstract epistemological ruminations to viscerally concrete action and back again. Somehow, these shifts are thrilling instead of disorienting or off-putting: I had no trouble accepting them and even savoring them, and a large part of that is the simple wonder of watching a story play out that is impossible to predict and still satisfying at every beat.
Although both pieces were originally published years ago – The Little Buddhist Monk in 2005 and The Proof in 1992 – they remain needle-sharp in their relevance. Consumerism, sexuality, the search for meaning, and the relationship between them are all at play here. The metaphors can be unsubtle, at times: the aforementioned punks’ names; the assertion that SpongeBob SquarePants is actually Korean, and will come to an end (at some far-off point in time dictated by the tides of ratings and ad revenue) with the revelation that SpongeBob has lived all this time in someone’s bathtub. I had the sense, often, that I was listening to an inside joke which only the author was privy to, or one that was really at my expense – that I was the one being laughed at. Aira’s narrators are extremely forthcoming in a way that isn’t overly explanatory, but that definitely explodes the old creative writing axiom of “show, don’t tell.” It could (and often does) take a character three and a half pages to take five steps. The verbosity of both the authorial voice and those of the characters is so extreme, at times, that I felt certain in one moment that there was a deep, complex, important truth being expressed, and the next moment I felt equally certain I was being made fun of for entertaining the possibility. To quote The Little Buddhist Monk: “What a beautiful, sad story, the French couple commented, and what a rich message it must surely contain for anyone who can correctly interpret it.”
Personal inadequacies aside, I love these stories, and they have cemented my respect for César Aira as an artist and a storyteller. In this Golden Age of television when it seems no story cannot be told in 50 hour-long episodes of high-budget HD video (and don't get me wrong, I love HBO as much as anyone), the Aira’s blazing novelettes serve as a reminder (as "Proof") that there are some things that can only be pulled off in writing, and that these things can flare up and vanish in the space of 90 pages, leaving their beautiful, inexplicable ash swirling in our minds.
The Little Buddhist Monk & The Proof is available now from New Directions.