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.