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César Aira: How I Became a Nun

I’m rocketing through César Aira’s books available in English (others reviewed here and here).  Which is not hard since they are incredibly short, and there are only three readily available (The Hare, published in the U.S.  in 1997 is cheapest used on Amazon at a mere $363, so I don’t count it).  It also helps that their plots are wild, taking turns at corners the reader can’t see coming.  How I Became a Nun (Cómo me hice monja, 1989; tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, 2007) is no exception.  In fact, of the three I’ve read, it is the wildest yet.

how-i-became-a-nun

Review copy courtesy of New Directions.

How I Became a Nun is different from the other two in that it starts with the sense of immediacy the others built up to.  The opening thirty pages are intense and worth reading in and of themselves.  In them we meet our narrator, a young boy (or girl, if you rely on her account) named César Aira, who has just moved from a small interior town to a larger town.  To his father’s delight, ice cream is available in the larger time, and, remembering his own excellent experiences with ice cream, the father is taking the young son for his first taste.  Shockingly, touching his first spoonful to his mouth,  César hates it, can’t even manage to swallow it so awful is the taste.  The unbelieving father becomes indignant and finally outraged.  How can anyone not like strawberry ice cream?  This incident becomes somehow very important to the narrator’s development:

My story, the story of “how I became a nun,” began very early in my life: I had just turned six.  The beginning is marked by a vivid memory, which I can reconstruct down to the last detail.  Before, there is nothing, and after, everything is an extension of the same vivid memory, continuous and unbroken, including the intervals of sleep, up to the point where I took the veil.

Once this excellently rendered episode is over, the narrator takes us into a chilling fever dream, complete with doppelgänger parents, wherein the narrator is able to step out of the story for a moment in order to see from the outside her story moving onward (all of the ellipses in the following quote are Aira’s own):

Over all these stories hovered another, more conventional in a way, but more fantastic too.  Separate from the series, it functioned like a “background,” always there.  It was a kind of static story . . . a chilling episode, with a wealth of horrific details . . . It filled me with dread, making the four-part delirium seem like light entertainment by comparison . . . Except that it wasn’t just one more element, a bolt of lightning in a stormy sky . . . it was everything that was happening to me . . . everything that would happen to me in an eternity that had not yet begun and would never end . . . I was the girl in an illustrated book of fairy tales; I had become a myth . . . I was seeing it from inside . . .

This section is so different in form from the first section that I began to wonder just what kind of story I was entering.  Then the next section came along, and it was very different from the first two.  Again, that is part of the creative process that is on display in the form of the novella.  And again, Aira ties this process into the substance of the themes underlying the strange narrative: creation of a personal narrative, identity, mimicry, parental figures’ role in all of the above.

The drama was triggered for me by the realization that the mute scene I was witnessing, the teacher’s and pupil’s abstract mimicry, affected me vitally.  It was my story, not someone else’s.  The drama had begun as soon as I had set foot in the school, and it was unfolding before me, entire and timeless.  I was and was not involved in it; I was present, but not a participant, or participating only by my refusal, like a gap in the performance, but that gap was me.

Like the other two novellas, this one is packed with pleasure and intellect.  My only problem was that each section is so separate and distinct from the one preceding it that it felt episodic and, therefore, lacked of the powerful forward thrust in the other two.  But . . . as annoyed as I was that every ten pages or so I was thrown out of the narrative and dropped into a strange new place, once I settled down and thought about the form (form is so important to Aira, which I find ironic since his works seem so formless and ad hoc), things started to make sense.  These gaps in the narrative are fundamental to the strangeness of Aira’s themes.  That they are not discussed (or even, apparently, recognized) by the narrator is just as strange as the fact that he never seems cognizant of the little gender discrepancy so often apparent to the reader but never remarked upon in any way by any of the characters. 

Aira gives me the impression that for him writing is a discovery process, and he doesn’t mind making the reader come along the way.  As polished as his novels are, they come off feeling like the spiritual cousin to an old fashioned essay—the intial “trying” brings about a complete result where both author and reader are fulfilled.

9 thoughts on “César Aira: How I Became a Nun

  1. It took three reviews, Trevor, but you have finally convinced me to buy an Aira — that ice cream episode really intrigues me. And I am intrigued by the disconnect that seems to follow, since I do like novels that require me to wonder what lies in the gaps between the written parts. Since from the dates you published in your reviews this was the first of the three to be written, maybe I’ll be reading them in order.

    (On a side note — and you can edit this part of the comment out later — the misuse of “different than” grates the old copy editor in me like fingernails on a blackboard. “Different than” requires a clause to follow — if it is a noun, “different from” is required. If you were a cub reporter, you would be being lashed right now I assure you.)

  2. Trevor says:

    You know, Kevin, I wrote “different from” and “different than” both in the review above and I thought, I wonder if anyone knows the difference! I actually do know the difference, when I think about it, from my own editing days (just about over—sending the last book to the printer today, in fact!). I put it in inadvertently the first time and then chose not to edit it because I couldn’t quite remember the rule at the moment. It wasn’t out of a sense of being tricky—I was actually just being lazy :). I will make sure to clean it out for you because if it’s like fingernails on the chalkboard, I hate that!

    On a somewhat similar note, how do you create your excellent m-dashes? Mine are always a bit shorter than I like, and I know I’m not using the code for an n-dash. Strangely, even when I copy yours directly from your comment, it shows up shorter in my comments, looking too much like an n-dash to suit me! What gives?

    Now, for Aira: this was actually my least favorite of the three as I was reading it, though thinking it over extensively since (it’s been about a month) it’s grown in my estimation a lot. I look forward to your thoughts! (my favorite was An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, though Ghosts has had me thinking a lot lately.)

  3. All I do for dashes is “space hyphen-hyphen space” as in — like that. I wonder (this is a test) if you are leaving out the spaces–like this.

  4. Trevor says:

    That’s how I do it in Word, but it’s never worked in my posts. Let’s see if it works in my comments — like that.

  5. Trevor says:

    It worked! Thanks, Kevin. That looks so much better. And now I’m going to have to avoid the urge to go through and edit all of my posts and comments!

  6. Okay, here’s my technology-related question. On my desk computer, I get what I think is your new avatar (the text on the sandy background). On my laptop, I still get the old one. Is there an explanation?

  7. Trevor says:

    You got me, Kevin. I was thinking that maybe your laptop didn’t refresh the image, but I’m not sure why it would refresh everything else. I’m not too smart in this area, but maybe it’s a setting on your internet browser on your laptop.

    The good news for your laptop: this gravatar is only temporary. Though just how temporary, I don’t know, because I’m still trying to find a decent one that integrates the site’s name and bookish theme without looking like someone else’s.

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