How I Became a Nun

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Cesar Aira

The Argentinian writer Cesar Aira is quite difficult to become acquainted with in English. Despite having apparently written more than forty novels, only five have been translated so far. But he is also difficult to know in another way: rejecting the traditional rules of the novel to reach for a form of story-telling based on a different, more intuitive logic. As he has explained himself:

“The story is always about something inexplicable. The art of narration declines as explanations are added.”

This is in direct opposition to the development of the novel, where the depth and coherence of character has become one of the primary aims. How I Became a Nun is a good example of these difficulties: for a start, despite the opening declaration, “My story, the story of ‘how I became a nun’ began very early in my life”, this is not a novel in which the narrator becomes a nun, or shows any inclination to become a nun. In fact, it is not clear if the narrator is male or female. An early statement (“I was a devoted daughter”) is soon contradicted by a reference to the narrator from another character as “the boy.” This is the general rule that is followed throughout: the narrator refers to herself as a girl; others do so as a boy. So, we have a female narrator who looks male, a male narrator who thinks he is female, or a game on the part of the author. The latter seems the most likely as the narrator is called Cesar Aira, lives in the same town where Aira was brought up, and has a friend with the same name as another writer from that town.

What can be said with some certainty, however, is that the novel begins with the six year old Aira eating ice cream for the first time:

“No sooner had the first particles dissolved on my tongue than I felt physically ill. I had never tasted anything so revolting.”

His father cannot believe he doesn’t like it and forces him to eat it, a situation that last until he tastes it himself and discovers that it is, indeed, disgusting. A violent altercation with the ice cream vendor follows. Aira next wakes up in hospital; his father is in prison.

The novel continues to tell of Aira’s school days, a visit to the prison to see his father, listening to the radio, his friendship with Arturo Carrera. Though there is progression, most chapters could be read as short stories, and there is certainly no urgency to the plotting. Only the final chapter makes a handbrake turn from the leisurely tone of memoir into thriller territory with a deliberately over-the top denouement which parallels the novel’s opening.

It has been suggested that the novel is concerned with writing, providing some explanation for the autobiographical elements. Certainly, the idea of creating stories is repeated throughout, beginning with Aira’s time in hospital:

“I was in a state of unremitting delirium with plenty of time to concoct the most baroque stories.”

This continues when he becomes lost on his prison visit:

“I imagined a scene in which I was explaining to the governor of the prison what had really happened: ‘…it was my dad. He grabbed me and hid me somewhere…he’s going to use me as a hostage in the breakout he’s planning with his accomplices…”

Later, when he is following his mother as if shadowing her, he admits that the game is a result of his “sheer love of fiction.”

It is “sheer love of fiction” that is most noticeable in the novel, with Aira seemingly delighting in letting the story go where it will, only to reassert control at the conclusion.

Danger rating: like ice cream – moreish, but too much at once could lead to brain freeze.

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3 Responses to “How I Became a Nun”

  1. Malcolm Gregory Love Says:

    That’s great to hear — I just snagged a copy of it for my vacation reading pile. Can’t wait. I’m also just read an amazing story collection by Stephen O’Connor called Smokestack Lightning. I’m posting a review when I get back home. Thanks for the insights on Aira — concise and clever as usual.

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks – I hope you enjoy it. I certainly intend to read more of Aira’s work. I’ll look out for your review of Smokestack Lightning – O’Connor’s not a writer I’ve heard of.

  2. Books of the Year 2011 « 1streading's Blog Says:

    [...] How I Became a Nun by Cesar Aira – it’s difficult to define what makes Aira’s short novels so attractive, but the sheer joie de vivre of the telling is one quality. Couldn’t resist – already returned for a dose of The Literary Conference. The good news is that New Directions seem to be publishing him regularly. [...]

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