How I Became a Nun
by César Aira (Cómo me hice monja, 1989)
translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (2007)
New Directions (2007)
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 $363.00, 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 is no exception. In fact, of the three I’ve read, it is the wildest yet.
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 initial “trying” brings about a complete result where both author and reader are fulfilled.