César Aira, an Argentine writer of novellas and novels, is a phenomenon: a compulsive writing machine with no pause or stop button. It began with a trickle of stories in the 1980s, a cascade in the ‘90s and ever since a steady stream of fiction pouring out from his fertile and extravagant imagination.
The word ‘unfolding’, explains the cultural critic Walter Benjamin writing about Kafka in 1934, has two meanings: there is the unfolding of a bud into a blossom and the unfolding of a paper boat which becomes a flat sheet of paper.
Two years later, writing “The storyteller”, he says how storytelling is rooted in oral tradition and how the story does not expend itself in the telling but lives in the memory and is repeated to others.
Storytelling preserves what gives it life and meaning and, could he have known about Aira, the Argentine’s stories could have been cited as examples. They provoke astonishment and reflection; unfolding, to use his image, like a bud.
Not all Aira’s stories have been translated into English but the publisher And Other Stories have brought out some and more are in the pipeline.
They are experimental and eccentric, off-the-wall in their unpredictability, and the books’ front covers are as crazily coloured as the prose inside.
Aria was a militant of the left in his youth and it stands him in good stead for he is an unconventional avant-garde writer, happy todefy literary conventions and cross with cheeky impunity the boundaries that define where one genre ends and another begins.
“The little Buddhist monk” is about a diminutive Korean monk with a yearning for the West. He meets a French couple – named Napoleon Chirac and Jacqueline Bloodymary – who are in his country and who take up his offer to be their guide.
Their tourist travels are not what they expect and the reader follows their travels with mounting incredulity.
“The proof” is altogether different and tells the story of sixteen-year-old Marcia, overweight and shy, who is sexually propositioned by two young punk girls.
Marcia gradually senses they are not making fun of her but when they talk of the need for love to prove itself the plot takes a startling direction which will leave you as astonished and bewildered as Marcia is herself by the event that unfolds.
Be prepared for a roller-coaster read that will have you gasping with astonishment and leave you wondering if the author has taken a narrative risk too far. Is he being frivolous or is he a literary guerrilla who wants to unsettle bourgeois notions of storytelling?
Each of these irreverent novellas is under a hundred pages in length, which makes them pleasingly affordable and perfect for keeping your mind tickled on an otherwise boring journey somewhere.
Read them at your peril, though, because César Aira has written over eighty such books and if you get hooked you’re going to be addicted for a long time.
“The little Buddhist monk” and “The proof” by César Aira, are published by And Other Stories