Cesar Aira. The Little Buddhist Monk & The Proof.
Cesar Aira is something of a magician. His short novels vary widely in subject matter and genre--in The Literary Conference, a city is destroyed by a giant worm while The Conversations is essentially just two friends discussing a movie but they are all undeniably his. More than anything, they're unified by his meticulous prose, which often lingers on what other writers might deem insignificant. Aira is perhaps the best there is at turning the trivial into the magnificent.
Such is the case for his newly translated novels, or novellas, if you prefer, The Little Buddhist Monk & The Proof. They are distinct, and though their combination is confusing, as New Directions has published shorter pieces than these two as individual physical objects, two new works by Aira are better than one.
The Little Buddhist Monk follows a Korean Buddhist monk (who is extremely little, small enough to be trampled on) as he spends the day with a pair of French tourists. They eat, drink, and eventually visit a temple together. Throughout all of this, Aira continually draws the focus back to the smallness of his main character, always tweaking his position toward it.
It would be unfair to reduce him to his physical dimensions, because they had been able to appreciate his intellectual and human capabilities, and something like friendship had grown up between them. They understood him perfectly, and yet in some (indefinable) way his size still gave rise to the doubt: who exactly did they understand so well? How?
This encapsulates one of the joys of reading Aira's work. He is always aware that passages such as this do the opposite of what they are meant (in a literal sense) to do. Mentioning his stature, even in an effort to minimize its importance, brings it to the forefront, and thus traps readers in the same dilemma as his characters.
More so than in any other Aira book, though, portions of this drag a little bit. One of the French tourists is a photographer, and when Aira turns his eye toward the process of his setting up, things slow down. It pays off eventually, but it's jarring for any portion of an (about) ninety-page novella to slow down, especially from a writer so engrossing. Still, there is perhaps nobody who writes endings more interesting than does Aira, and that is equally the case with The Little Buddhist Monk.
The second novella, The Proof, begins with a simple question-"wannafuck?"--to which Aira delays an answer for almost six pages. It's a confident move that benefits from taking place ninety pages into the book rather than on page one, and it is worth it, too. In between question and answer, Aira immerses readers in Mareia and her world.
Marcia is on her daily walk around Plaza Flores in Buenos Aires, ruminating on what is going on around her. She observes the way the social groups ebb and flow and notices the music coming from the nearby record shops. She also thinks about the oddness of how sunset changes throughout the year, and what that means for the abstract ideas of day and night.
Every look, every voice she slipped past mingled with the night. Because It was night. The day was over and night was in the world; at this hour in summer it was still broad daylight; but now it was night. Not the kind of night for sleeping, the real one, but a night superimposed on the day because it was winter.
In this passage, Marcia's fascination with the way people acquiesce to their surroundings is rendered well, and its an important idea to have at the fore when the woman who yelled "wannafuck?" comes back in to ask again. The proposi-tioner, who goes by Mao, and her friend, Lenin, are not keen to let the question go unanswered. Mao is convinced that she loves her and wants to have sex with her, or perhaps, a threesome. They duck into a restaurant where they talk and harass a few employees before leaving to go stick up a supermarket. The story takes a similar form to some of his other books, like The Literary Conference or Dinner, in the way it transforms from the abnormal to the shocking, and nobody walks the line better.
Aira fuses the magical realist elements with an early-era George Saundersian postmodern credulity, and the package is impossible to resist. His aptitude for wild plots, stuffed with thoughtful, odd characters only makes this attraction greater. In The Little Buddhist Monk and The Proof specifically, these are on display. Compared to The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira or The Literary Conference, it leaves a little to be desired, but only a little. Aira remains one of the most unique and enchanting writers alive.