The Proof

Although Cesar Aira was first translated into English (by the self-same Nick Caistor who has translated The Proof) and published in the UK in 1998 – the rather atypical The Hare – it has been New Directions in the US who have been largely responsible for making him available to an English-speaking audience. Luckily, presumably as a result of And Other Stories’ new partnership with New Directions, they have now taken on the mantle of Aira’s UK publisher having reprinted The Seamstress and the Wind, and released two new works, The Little Buddhist Monk and The Proof.

Famously, once Aira starts writing he does not look back but pursues his premise to the end. The Proof begins with an unexpected encounter between innocent, isolated, sixteen-year-old Marcia and two ‘punk’ girls who call themselves Lenin and Mao. Marcia is described as:

“…blonde, small, chubby, somewhere between child and adult. She was wearing a woollen skirt and a thick blue pullover, with lace-up shoes.”

The ‘punks,’ in contrast, are all in black. They are two among the many young people gathered in the cold night “with the ridiculous need to meet their friends” that Marci has passed, feeling that “she couldn’t be part of it.” They greet her with “Wannafuck?” the novel’s very first words, a shock for the reader intended to echo Marcia’s surprise. This crudeness is a counterpoint to Marcia’s comfortable but unhappy existence. Of course, she walks away, but is also attracted to devil-may care attitude of the girls:

“That two girls, two women, could have wanted to pick her up, out loud, voicing obscenities, two punks who confirmed their violent self-expulsion from proper behaviour… It was so unexpected, so novel… Really anything could happen, and those who could make it happen were the hundreds of young people who came out into the street to waste time at nightfall, after school.”

The girls pursue her, the one who called out to her, Mao, insisting it is not a joke:

“Listen to me, Marcia: what I told you is true. Love at first sight. It’s completely true.”

The girls’ ill-mannered assault is now reset as an expression of romantic sensibility. In fact, throughout the novel Mao and Lenin will remake themselves in both Marcia and the reader’s eyes, their disregard for rules allowing them an unpredictability which threatens the boundaries of both characterisation and realism.

Marcia agrees to go to a café with them to talk. Further tension between Marcia’s conformity and the punks’ disregard for social niceties is immediately created by their refusal to order despite Marcia’s fear that, “We’ll get thrown out if we don’t have something.” Her questioning rebounds against their insistence that nothing is of any importance, including any answers they might give her. They mock one of the waitresses, whom Marcia immediately identifies with; their conversation offers duelling ideologies where neither ideology is stated. Still, Marcia is thrilled by their unpredictability:

“Marcia’s surprise only grew. From surprise she went to surprise within surprise.”

If the novel seems lacking in action up to this point, be assured the final twenty pages more than make up for it. This may be a leap of faith for readers ensconced in a largely realistic narrative, but, like Marcia, I found myself breathless with the audacity of both the girls and the author.

The seven Aira novels (or novellas) I’ve read previously divide fairly evenly into those I like and those I love: this falls into the ‘love’ category without question (and not just because of the subject matter). Though still possessed of the wildness of his best work, it is also intensely coherent, following an unstoppable narrative path from Marcia’s first step to her last. Aira’s presentation of Mao and Lenin is both cartoonish and nuanced: one moment he seems to be mocking them, the next casting admiring glances. The move at the end from all-talk to all-action is a master stroke, powering us towards a genuine conclusion. This may well be the Aira I recommend to newcomers from now on.

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10 Responses to “The Proof”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Well, I’m an Aira newcomer, so I’ll definitely look out for this one!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Oh, Grant – I love your enthusiasm for this book. It’s really quite palpable! I’m almost tempted to give this author another try, especially given your closing comments. Almost…

    • 1streading Says:

      I know you had a bad experience with Aira – was it Ghosts? (That’s one I haven’t read). You might like this better, but of course there so many writers to read, you can’t read them all!

      • JacquiWine Says:

        Yes, Ghosts left me feeling a bit bemused. I liked the opening and the closing section, but got lost in middle when he appeared to go off on a complete tangent for no apparent reason. And then there’s the one with Carlos Fuentes and the giant worms (The Literary Conference?). I’ve come to the view that I’m probably not on the right wavelength to fully appreciate his brand of craziness!

      • 1streading Says:

        That may well be a good thing for you!

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I recently subscribed to And Other Books so this may be winging its way to me. I rather hope so as it sounds very good. It would be my first Aira, and clearly it’s a good one to start with.

    What was your previous first Aira recommend?

    • 1streading Says:

      Probably How I Became a Nun, though that was before Penguin published some of his books here so you can now get three in one relatively cheap volume.

  4. roughghosts Says:

    I’m glad to hear this landed on your “love” list. I recently received my And Other Stories copy. I have yet to read Aira, although I have a few on hand. A couple are very tiny so there is really no excuse. Perhaps I should make this my first!

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