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César Aira: El pequeño monje budista (The Little Buddhist Monk)

The eponymous Little Buddhist Monk is very small, barely half the size of a normal adult male. He is Korean and belongs to a mendicant order where the monks are entirely independent and where there is no way of recognising a monk belonging to the same order. He has one ambition – to travel to foreign countries, particularly Europe or the United States. However, that is not feasible, as he has no money to buy a ticket and what would he do there anyway? Being a Buddhist monk does not provide one with suitable skills for working abroad.

He reads foreign literature extensively. First we are told it is Shakespeare, Balzac and Kafka and then Hegel and Truman Capote. He studies the history and cultures of Europe and the United States. We later learn that he can speak fluent French. This dream of travelling abroad gave his life meaning and he keeps hoping that somehow, he will be able to go.

One day, he is hanging around a posh tourist hotel and a couple come out, speaking French. He heard them say, as they were looking for a taxi, quelqu’un qui parle français. He immediately tells them that he speaks French. He had seen here an opportunity – a rich French couple who help him fulfil his dream. He takes them to a nearby café (it reminds them of Les Deux Magots!)

We soon learn that he is wittily called Napoléon Chirac and she is even more wittily called Jacqueline Bloodymary. He is a photographer, specifically a photographer of spaces, human spaces, or rather the way that different cultures compartmentalised space. For example, the alleys of New York, the museums in the Old World, football stadiums and even more specifically culturally charged space. He is here to photograph Korean Buddhist temples. Jacqueline does cartoons for tapestries.

It is at this point that we start getting into Aira’s customary unusual view of the world. For example, our monk tells the French couple that the traditional Korean way of telling jokes or parables is to put the punch line first, unlike the Western way of finishing with the punch line. He goes on to outline Korea’s contribution to the world, including SpongeBob SquarePants, which, he claims, is of Korean origin (there is no evidence for this). In short, we are dealing with a country called Korea, which resembles the real Korea but is, for the most part, entirely an invention of Aira’s mind.

We see this as the trio travel to a temple, where their journey takes them through what is clearly a fictitious landscape. The train journey is complicated by the fact that passengers all too often pull the communication cord to stop the train. The guard appears and remonstrates with them but they still get off at what looks like a ramshackle, temporary platform. We do eventually get an explanation for this and it is not surprisingly not what we might have guessed.

Our monk is taking the couple to a temple. They had originally thought of going to Bulguksa (which implies that the unnamed city they are in is Busan) but our monk offers to take them to a temple that is almost as good but well off the tourist track. Napoléon’s approach to taking the photos is to take a series of photos, placing the camera more or less in the centre of the space and then, with the camera on a device that slowly revolves 360°, taking pictures as it revolves. He then combines the photos to make a 360° image.

Not surprisingly, things get strange at this point. The monks seem quite amenable to his taking the photos but, at the same time, like naughty children, deliberately disrupt him, wandering into the picture and then sheepishly apologising. The light takes on a strangeness and Aira uses this to show that not only light but also sound and smells can distort a photo.

With translations of translations, instant learning of Korean, pop music continually playing in the temple because, otherwise, the temple would be, according to the monks, too depressing, the sun disappearing and the fact that our monk may not be human and that the temple is in a parallel world, the story gets decidedly Airaeanly weird.

Once again, Aira, starts out with a story that seems relatively straightforward but turns out to be anything but. We plunge into a world where the normal rules no longer apply and where nothing is really what it seems. As always, it is highly entertaining, has you guessing as to where it might go (you won’t guess correctly) and raise a few interesting questions about life and light.

Publishing history

First published by Mansalva in 2005
First published in English by New Directions in 2017
Translated by Nick Caistor