This was the magic spell the punks had cast on her: they made her believe the world could be renewed.

The Proof, by Cesar Aira and translated by Nick Caistor

‘Wannafuck?’

When I read The Proof I enjoyed it but initially found it a little slight. I admired its energy and clarity even if I couldn’t quite see what the point of it was.

I’m now a month or two on and the surprise has been how sharp and bright The Proof has remained in memory. I find myself wanting to read more like it, even though I’m not quite sure what “like it” would look like.

Love that cover.

The book opens with the single compound word I opened this review with – ‘wannafuck?’ It’s an instant shock to the reader. It stops you in your tracks.

It doesn’t quite stop Marcia, the teenage girl it’s directed to, because it takes her a moment to realise she’s its target. She’s an ordinary girl, conventional even, and that kind of greeting is entirely beyond her experience.

Marcia was blonde, small, chubby, somewhere between child and adult. She was wearing a woollen skirt and a thick blue pullover, with lace-up shoes. Her face was flushed from her walk, but it was always ruddy anyway.

She looks around and sees who called out to her:

They were two punks, dressed in black. Very young, although maybe slightly older than she was, with pale, childish features.

The punks call themselves Mao and Lenin, and it was Mao who called out to Marcia. Mao insists the offer is quite serious and that she’s in love with Marcia on first sight. Marcia isn’t interested but the conversation continues and the three girls head off down the street together.

They go to a café where Marcia tries to understand what it’s like to be a punk. The question doesn’t interest the punks themselves who nihilistically proclaim that nothing matters, or at least nothing Marcia is talking about matters.

There’s a sense of clashing philosophies. Marcia sympathises with a waitress in the café who has to ask them to leave since they won’t order. The punks are contemptuous and take the view that if they cause the waitress to lose her job that’s no great loss for anyone concerned.

Put like that it sounds like an ordinary argument. Idealism versus cynicism. But it’s not that simple because Mao and Lenin are arguing for the purity of love and what could be more idealistic than that? The punks are transcendent: black and white and pure of purpose. Marcia is ruddy, earthy, everyday. Marcia fears that once the punks see how ordinary she actually is they may prefer the waitress to her. She doesn’t see what they do: that love itself makes her extraordinary.

Or perhaps it doesn’t. I’m not absolutely sure. I talked of a sense of clashing philosophies and part of why this stays so sharp in hindsight is that it is just a sense – Aira doesn’t spell anything out and the uncertainty of what’s at stake somehow makes the impact all the more powerful.

While in the café the punks tell Marcia a story of an acquaintance and a lost necklace. It’s a reflection of the wider novel – not in terms of content or structure but in terms of how the two cannot be separated:

Marcia couldn’t believe it. This was the first time in her life that she had heard a well-told story, and it had seemed to her sublime, an experience that made up for all the fears this meeting had caused.

To start with, she grasped that it was not done to go on praising the form; such praise had to be transmitted implicitly in her comments on the content. But she was so dazzled that content and form became intertwined; whatever she might say about the former would inevitably be transferred to the latter.

The conversation ends; the punks declare that love requires proof and from there the novel goes at unstoppable pace to an extraordinary and bloody conclusion. To the extent it was ever realistic it leaves that realism gasping in its wake (yet without any element of the fantastical).

At the end I can’t actually say what The Proof is about, or indeed if it’s even about anything much at all. I don’t understand it. I think that’s part of what I like about it. It’s audacious. It’s tremendous fun. I love it as Mao loves Marcia – for itself but without reason. I’ve already bought more Aira.

Other reviews

Only one I have a note of which is by Grant of 1st Reading here. Grant’s review persuaded me to give this a go and I’m very glad I did.

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11 Comments

Filed under Aira, Cesar, Argentinian fiction, South-American fiction, Spanish

11 responses to “This was the magic spell the punks had cast on her: they made her believe the world could be renewed.

  1. Was this your first Aira? I bought (possibly also on Grant’s recommendation) a three-in-one volume of his novels: Ghosts, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter and The Literary Conference. Can’t wait to read them… but need to find time.

  2. I feel like your two opening paragraphs could be made about any Aira novel. At least, that’s the reaction I’ve had to the two novels I’ve read of his. Because his books are so slight and bizarre they can pass in a rush, but they do seem to resonate over time. I think you get the reason why really well – the ambivalent meaning of his ideas and the striking imagery which can be really haunting. I haven’t read this one but I am drawn to his take on teenage love and punks. I look forward to reading it. Great review!

  3. It is my first Marina. I’ve picked up The Little Buddhist Monk since.

    Eric, interesting to hear that. Slight and bizarre, but resonating, exactly! The imagery sticks even if the meaning of it is slightly unclear. It’s like a peculiarly vivid dream.

  4. I was intrigued by this one after reading Grant’s review and now I’m still intrigued after yours. I wonder whether this is a good one to start with this author? I shall keep an eye out for his books.

  5. What I like about your response to this one is the fact that you’re not phased by its lack of clear meaning. Bravo! If only I could adopt the same mindset then perhaps I wouldn’t find Aira’s books so frustrating. After reading a couple of his novellas a year or so ago, I came to the view that I wasn’t on the right wavelength for his brand of craziness. My loss no doubt, but that’s something I’m quite prepared to live with!

    PS That cover is spectacular. It almost makes me want to read the book. 🙂

  6. Kaggsy, at his Grant suggested that this was probably the best starting point for Aira and it’s worked that way for me. It looks like the one to go with.

    Jacqui, my suspicion is that the meaning is something of a veneer – that if we probed deeper it wouldn’t necessarily hold together. That’s not a criticism, but it is perhaps a caveat. If I had to, say for a Uni essay, I could doubtless write a couple of thousand words on the conflicting symbolism and philosophies of Marcia versus Mao and Lenin, but I’d be making most of it up. Aira works well with the implicit.

    Any excuse not to read an author is always to be welcomed, given we do not have world enough and time. Besides, Aira’s written something like 80 novels I think so he’s a dangerous writer to get into.

    The cover is great though. It reflects the book well, not necessarily in the particulars but the spirit of it.

  7. Thanks for the link. I’m glad you enjoyed this. I liked the way that Aira doesn’t take sides – in fact, doesn’t seem to see the point of ‘sides’ at all! I’ve read that Aira begins his stories with no idea where they are going – and doesn’t rewrite. I’ve found bearing that in mind helps!

  8. It’s a definite hit with me Grant, even if it took a little while to settle. The manner in which he writes his stories to be honest makes a certain sense.

  9. This was to be my first Aira. I scanned your review and felt heartened but after 30 pages I’m done. I have a couple of his well-known titles that I have had for ever—An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter and Varamo, which those who know say represent two types of Aira books—but I’m in no rush after this encounter.

  10. If you were done after 30 pages you were right to bail. I don’t think it would have improved for you. This is why I try not to have more than one book by an author I haven’t read yet actually – because I’ve had similar experiences to yours in the past where I had say three books by an author that had accumulated, finally tried one and found I didn’t like their work at all.

  11. Pingback: The less realist a work of art, the more the artist has been obliged to get his hands dirty in the mud of reality. | Pechorin's Journal

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