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.

I had almost finished reading César Aira's short novel on my way home from a book launch last night when I stopped at a Chinese takeaway to get my dinner. After placing my order, I sat down to continue reading when an eight year old boy came up to me and asked if I knew I had entered a force field which transported me to another time. I replied I didn't know that and asked what time I was now in. He said we are now in 2008 which is the year he was born. He looked up thoughtfully and reasoned that this meant he wasn't really here yet. Such an unexpected plunge into the realm of fantasy is entirely in sync with this surreal and surprising novel.

The main story involves a car chase. Seamstress Delia Siffoni's son has gone missing. Believing he might be in the back of a neighbour's large truck that has embarked on a long haul drive, she pursues him. Her gambler husband Ramón pursues Delia and in pursuit of Ramón is a mysterious little blue car. Following all of them is a gust of wind named Ventarrón which carries a wedding dress. There's also a sinister monstrous baby let loose on the world after a horrific incident. This might all sound bizarre enough, but it gets a lot stranger. There's an Alice in Wonderland-type journey through the convoluted labyrinth of a truck. One character's skin colour changes. A meteorological phenomenon falls in love. At all times, you are aware that this novel is a construct as it is a story being composed by a writer sitting in a Parisian cafe. In doing so, Aira creates a bewitching tale at the same time as meditating on the meaning of invention, memory and art.

The writer is upfront at the novel's beginning that all he has for this book is a title. How he goes about constructing a story to fill that title is something he pauses to consider in depth. Most would consider that novels are formed out of a blend of a writer's experience and imagination. What else could it be? But Aira is intent on utilizing the state of forgetfulness for his creativity rather than inventing a story: “In loss everything comes together.” He's mistrustful of imagination because he feels it will always draw upon memory which is unreliable. Rather than tie his creation to the past he wants it to exist freely: “Forgetting is like a great alchemy free of secrets, limpid, transforming everything into the present. In the end it makes our lives into this visible and tangible thing we hold in our hands, with no folds left hidden in the past. I seek it, to oblivion, in the insanity of art.” So the novel is a sort of freeform exercise based in what he doesn't recall and the result is a bizarre episodic series of events and descriptions which follow a dream-like logic.

Since I was having trouble puzzling over what to make of Aira's novel I asked these cute kids what they thought it was about. They answered time travel and Vikings.

Since I was having trouble puzzling over what to make of Aira's novel I asked these cute kids what they thought it was about. They answered time travel and Vikings.

I'm not sure I believe it's possible for Aira or “the writer” to create a story untied to the past. You certainly can't fit the strange images and twists of the story into any neat interpretation, but that doesn't mean they aren't based in part on his lived experience or emotional experience. He tries to hold his characters such as Delia in the present as she is spontaneously created: “Delia is not the luminous miniature in the reels of any movie projector. I said she was a real woman, and I submit myself to my words, to some of them at least... to the words before they make sentences, when they are still purely present.” But details arise, such as how the local housewives who don't work look sneeringly down upon Delia for maintaining a profession as a seamstress even though her husband works. This economic imbalance and sexist social injustice feels like it was inspired by the writer's experience either directly or indirectly. Similarly, there is a touching way how the writer describes his boyhood when the trucker Chiquito created snowmen for him to enjoy. The sentiment of this friendly, playful gesture feels real as well. I'm not saying these things happened to Aira and I never try to interpret a writer’s life into my reading, but how can there be any emotional resonance if it didn’t come from a person with experience? It feels to me like there is an emotional truth, rather than historical truth, which comes through whether the writer is conscious of it or not.

César Aira is an incredibly prolific Argentinian novelist with around eighty novels and novellas to his name. That his output is so rapid isn’t surprising when you read this novel – not because it lacks craft or refinement, but there is a rapid fire quality to the prose where ideas and images are boiling over to form an outrageous plot. His writing has been compared to Borges and it came across like reading an Italo Calvino novel to me or watching a David Lynch film. It’s clearly not cosy fiction, but it’s sophisticated and energetic writing which will leave you scratching your head with curious wonder. I have a feeling certain powerful eerie scenes will stick with me more than his theories on narrative. Most of all, I admire the sheer uncompromising audacity and verve of this novel.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesCésar Aira