There's something really compelling and endearing about the prolific maverick Argentinian writer César Aira. He takes an idea and runs with it pulling the reader through madcap, existential or surreal adventures. Previously, I've only read his novel “The Seamstress and the Wind” but I can tell likes to take his characters on trips: both physical journeys and through altered psychological states that warp reality. “The Little Buddhist Monk” (first published in 2005 under the title “El Pequeño Monje Budista”) is about a diminutive monk who feels his life was meant for something much larger than the circumscribed existence in his native Korea. French couple Napoleon and Jacqueline arrive in the country seeking artistic inspiration and cultural edification. The small man has difficulty being seen, but once they notice him he offers to take them to an out of the way monastery. What at first appears like a realistic cross-cultural experience gradually morphs into something much more strange and abstract. In this way, Aira challenges and surprises while making uncommon connections.
The reader first becomes attuned to something off-kilter about Aira’s landscape when the monk and French couple travel to the monastery. Individuals periodically pull the emergency brake on the train and exit onto stations which look slightly off to Napoleon and Jacqueline. The monk confides to them that these people have been enchanted by witches that inhabit the surrounding environment and find it fun to prank travellers into stopping at stations which don’t really exist. This concept of people being controlled by unknown forces repeats in later revelations about the monk’s state of being. It prompts questions about the degree of liberty people are capable of possessing. We often dream of living beyond the bounds of the lives we’re born into, but few people are actually able to break out of the paths created through our particular circumstances and culture. It also asks the degree of difference between one place and another in the modern world: “globalisation, which nowadays had converted all civilisations into one.” The French couple travel to experience some “authentic” kind of other, yet find themselves in a reality that has merely been formatted for their consumption.
Another dominant concept of the novel is about the question of perspective. Napoleon is a photographer who takes 360 degree photos as a way of trying to capture the totality of a particular time and place. The mischievous monks at the monastery dart in and out of the picture frame because they find it funny, but their image isn’t captured due to the long exposure. So does Napoleon’s photo fully capture the reality of this place? Aira questions the validity of realism in artwork stating “The less realist a work of art, the more the artist has been obliged to get his hands dirty in the mud of reality.” It could be that through his absurdist storytelling, the author more fully engages with our psychological reality rather than novels that render a landscape within nature’s laws. One of the final concepts this novel poses is a television program which the monk is desperate to watch as it claims to definitively map female genitalia. This is a humorous joke about some men’s inability to sexually satisfy women because they can’t locate the pleasure spot, but it also says something about our difficulty in really seeing each other even when we’re as intimate as possible and completely stripped down.
It’s challenging to get the reader to truly care about the journey of the characters in such cerebral writing. But I feel Aira shows real empathy for his characters’ situations and takes their struggles seriously even while driving them through the funhouse of his creation. There’s tension in the French couple’s relationship when Jacqueline sees no place for herself in Napoleon’s all-encompassing photographs. She finds that “In real life there were no enchanted princesses, only hopes extinguished by routine, by prosaic and gradual deaths.” Their many journeys abroad do little to bring the pair emotionally closer together. I was even more compelled by the monk’s dilemma who seeks to become larger than the small existence he’s been programmed to live.
Aira is such a curious writer, but I think his novels only manage to be so compelling because they are so brief. There are now over eighty of them! His style of leaping from idea to idea around a central story concept wouldn’t be sustained very well in a larger fictional work. For instance, I don’t think he could pull off a novel as long as Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Unconsolled” or "The Buried Giant" which follow dream-like structures. Nevertheless, Aira’s absurdist imagery peppered with philosophical musing has such a seductive appeal. It’s invigorating writing that has a curious way of lingering in the reader’s imagination.