Longing for Otherness on a Playful Journey of Buddhist Philosophy, Misconception, and Belonging

The West often dreams about the East, but this relationship is reciprocated as the Orient also dreams of the Occident. We all look for a sense of meaning in life, a reason to carry on, and for the little Buddhist monk the reason is a dream of the West. He wishes to relocate; he believes such a thing will make him happier in life and more content. 

A random encounter with a French couple sets him on such a path; however, as Aira shows us so eloquently perception and reality are two separate things altogether. The monk begins to guide the couple to various cultural landmarks that help to define Korea. As the narrative progresses, he realises that their vision of the East is somewhat distorted. It is generalised, completely lacking in individual character and undiscerning in regards to the rest of the Orient. The monk is put on his guard; he becomes fiercely defensive of his culture; he even goes as far as to play with language and letters, with the names of things, to represent his country in the best possible way. This novel, though short, is nonetheless powerful with the ability to recognise universal truths. Aira’s playful prose dances around themes of misconception, ignorance, and latent racism. 

Edward Said writes in his groundbreaking book Orientalism (1978) that the West perceives the east in a very reductionist and falsifying way. The Occident views the Orient as a parent would a child; it is a patronising relationship in which the West assumes their culture is superior, more intelligent and developed. The East is seen as childlike, primitive and simple in comparison. 

postcolonial themes pour out of the writing
The monk seeks to debunk such assumptions by providing an image of Korea that is rich in diversity and individuality. In a world of globalisation, where all civilisations are supposedly connected, they are drastically unconnected based upon these ignorant misconceptions. The postcolonial themes pour out of the writing as the monk begins to capitalise on the situation, using it as a basis to educate the ignorant western couple. 

He takes them to a traditional Korean Buddhist temple rather than the standard tourist traps that most people visit. Napoleon Chirac wishes to photograph the scene, but the monks confuse him with their behaviour. They tease him, disrupting his efforts at trying to capture an essence of their lives through a lens. They engage in distinctively western behaviour; they drink Coca-Cola and listen to western pop music as he attempts to put a label on their existence, a photograph that would define them in an instant and for an eternity. Such a thing comes with a stark realisation for Napoleon: it is better to live in the moment, to experience the now, rather than try to immortalise it on photography paper. Culture cannot be simplified. The essence of Korean Buddhism cannot be represented in its entirety in such a way. Any attempt to do so would be nothing short of insulting. 

"How strange, commented Napoleon Chirac, that a translation should need a translation.” 

Such is seen with the scathing sarcasm the monk directs at Napoleon. Napoleon reads a sign, and the monk mocks him by telling him he can learn the Korean language in just a few hours. The arrogance of the westerner demands chastisement as he stomps into unfamiliar territory and expects to be able to define it in a matter of moments with his camera. The didactical message the monk imparts is one aimed at the heart of such cultural stereotypes, and, incidentally, he also learns his own lesson in the process. 

The journey leaves you considering exactly what is real within life

Central to this story is a sense of longing. It does not matter what your geographical location is, the soul will always long for more whether that be the Occident or the Orient is immaterial. It is how life works, and it is how the mind works, but what the Buddhist monk realises is that true peace comes from within. Contentment, the ability to recognise that such longing is only temporary (a state of impermanence), is the highest of truths. As he attempts to impart some wisdom, a situation only brought about by sheer chance, he begins his own spiritual journey. Although the couple were those in need of the most guidance, his actions make him understand the similar folly he once harboured to the west. 

The journey leaves you considering exactly what is real within life and the importance of trying to find it. The narrative is interposed with themes of Buddhism; they are used extremely effectively to show that longing for the other, for the Orient or the Occidental, does not necessarily mean the fruition of such a goal will equal happiness. Something higher must be attained. 

Aira’s novel is seeping with Buddhist philosophy and provides a contemporary postcolonial voice in translation; certainly, a voice not to be ignored. 

The Little Buddhist Monk by César Aira is published by And Other Stories and is available now.

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