How I Became a Nun by César Aira
César Aira’s How I Became a Nun is a picaresque novel set in Rosario, Argentina, about a precocious six-year-old named César Aira. César the character, who claims to be, alternately, a boy and a girl (but mainly a girl), has a hyper-developed sense of reality, a plethora of hang-ups, and a casual relationship with the truth. She wouldn’t be out of place in J.D. Salinger’s fiction, and her tendency to examine and re-examine her life endlessly and witheringly recalls the protagonists in Thomas Bernhard’s work.
Her story begins, simply enough, with César being treated to an ice cream by her father. She takes one lick of a strawberry scoop and finds it repulsive: “As my tongue pressed against my palate and I felt the ice cream dissolving, my whole body was seized by a convulsion. I didn’t go through the motions of swallowing. Disgust flooded through me; it was exploding in my brain like a flash of lightning.” Not your typical six-year-old’s reaction, but par for the course for this one. The vividness of Aira’s language (expertly rendered from the Spanish by Chris Andrews) never flags, even as César’s despair grows to mountainous proportions: “My father was a statue, a block of stone. Shaken, trembling, tear-sodden, holding the ice cream cone in one hand and the spoon in the other, my red face twisted in an anxious wince, I was paralyzed too. More so in fact, since I was fastened to a pain that towered over my childhood, my smallness, my extreme vulnerability, indicating the scale of the universe.” As it turns out, César’s ice cream, in a typical Airaian twist, has been tainted with cyanide.
This initial set-piece is a template for all that follows. Whether she’s laid up after the poisoning in a hospital ward, visiting her father in prison (he kills the ice-cream vendor), or simply playing dress-up with a friend from school, life is always on the verge of crushing César. She’s forever holding forth on what she calls “the tragedy of my childhood and my whole life.” Luckily, for readers, César’s grief is as hilarious as it is horrifying.
And, yet, it’s also deeply calculated. “I made a mountain out of every molehill,” she notes of her troubles making friends in the first grade, “and that was my main problem.” Still, she can’t resist exercising her powers of manipulation and analysis on everyone around her. She’s determined to trip up the doctor attending her at the hospital: “An urge, a whim or a manic obsession that not even I could explain impelled me to sabotage the doctor’s work, to trick him. I pretended to be stupid... I must have thought the opportunity was too good to waste. I could be as stupid as I liked, with impunity.” César’s mother, who ekes out a living by taking in ironing, must put up with a daughter who sees right through her: “Mom had no hope of pretending with me. My monstrous, piercing eyes prevented any living being from merging into the background of my life.” Calling her cynical would be an understatement.
It’s fitting, then, that at the end of this brilliant novel César is involved in a kidnapping she essentially orchestrates herself. The consequences bring the story full circle, as César is forced to confront the foodstuff she fears the most.
How I Became a Nun by César Aira, Translated by Chris Andrews.