The Little Buddhist Monk & The Proof

Aira continues to surprise and delight in his latest release from New Directions, which collects two novellas: the first, The Little Buddhist Monk, a fairly recent work from 2005, and The Proof, an earlier work from 1989. There are a number of similarities to be sure—they both revolve around the sudden but intense relationship between three characters, they both take place over the course of less than twenty-four hours, they are both, at turns, wildly funny. And while they share a sudden twist in the final act (also an Aira speciality), the rug-pulling involved could not be more different. The Proof erupts into brutal, giddy violence, while the The Little Buddhist Monk is Hitchcockian in its eerie and melancholy finale. The Little Buddhist Monk is a sort of modern fairy tale; The Proof is a philosophy lesson disguised as a nightmare.

The titular character in The Little Buddhist Monk is an autodidact who dreams of escaping Korea to the Western world, but, being monastic and therefore penniless, has yet to figure out how achieve his goal. By sheer chance (of course), he happens to literally bump into a French couple outside a hotel, and impresses them both with his mastery of French, as well as his knowledge of the local temples, one of which will be the next subject of the famous husband’s photography project. A mutually beneficially partnership forms: the couple get the monk to guide them around the city, and the monk, hoping to make himself indispensable to the couple, gets his ticket out of Korea.

And of course, along the way, the three get to know each other better, and it’s in their conversations we get to enjoy Aira’s surreal parody of the boilerplate East vs. West comparisons so frequent in literature, and how easily those cliches can be exploited and monetized in today’s globalized world. Whether describing the Korean animator’s influence on the television show Spongebob Squarepants, the Buddhist legend of a suicidal horse attempting to throw itself off a building, or in the highly anticipated primetime Korean TV special showing the first fully 3-D animated guide to the clitoris, West and East, fantasy and reality, art and commerce, notions of masculinity and femininity collide in the way only Aira can orchestrate.

In The Proof, a schoolgirl named Marcia is walking home when she’s accosted by two female punks, one of whom seems desperate to have sex with her. Initially, Marcia is repulsed and confused, but her curiosity gets the better of her, and when it seems that no matter of refusal will shake the two away, Marcia takes the opportunity to try to get an inside look at the counter-culture. But what Marcia discovers in the punks isn’t a philosophy, but the absence of one. And in turn, The Proof offers the reader a crash course in nihilism.

But the question that remains for Aira, it seems, even when the world collapses into violence, is this: what is love, and more specifically, is love itself nihilist? Mao, the alpha of the two punks, posits it this way:

The big mistake is the world of explanations you live in. Love is a way out of that mistake. An escape from that mistake. Why do you reckon I can’t love you? Do you have an inferiority complex, like all fatties? No. And if you think you do, you’re wrong about that too… And yet,” Mao was saying, “love also allows for one detour, just one: action: because love, which cannot be explained, does in fact have proofs. Of course, these are not exactly procrastination, because proofs are the only thing love has . . . These proofs are as valuable as love, not because they are the same or equivalent, but because they open a perspective onto another aspect of life: action.

Shortly after, Mao, in The Proof’s grand guignol finale, takes a local grocery store and all its customers hostage so she can rob it. Aira drolly compares this to “the equivalent of what in olden days would have been the killing of a dragon,” which, as a descriptor goes, is quite apt, if the reader were to compare the carnage and bloodshed that would occur when a group of ordinary humans attempt to slay said monster, with the chaos that then unfolds in The Proof.

When trying to imagine or conjure our best selves into reality, how often do we say to ourselves that “we would do anything” for the ones we love? That it is a noble and good thing to sacrifice ourselves or something we value in the name of “true love”? Aira posits, then, if love has no upper limit, then it also has no lower limit. Love, amoral, will stop at nothing. And as these horrors are about to unfold, Mao, goddess of nihilism, reminds us: “Remember that everything that happens here, will be a proof of love.”

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