2. A book written in South America: How I Became a Nun by César Aira
List Progress: 13/25
This is a weird one. Weird in a way I enjoy, a sort of delightful, understated weirdness, but weird nonetheless. In the past, I’ve had a difficult time engaging with South American literature, as the magical realism aesthetic common in the region does not appeal to me much. While How I Became a Nun, published in 1993 by Argentinian writer César Aira, may not completely sell me on the genre, it does help me to see more of the appeal.
How I Became a Nun has absolutely nothing to do with nuns, monasteries or religion. It is about a little girl named César Aira (although this does not appear to be an autobiographical work) and the strange occurrences that come up through the course of her sixth year of life. In the very striking opening sequence, her father buys her her first ever ice cream cone, in an act of paternal bonding. She finds it bitter and hates it, which her father initially takes as a rejection of his love, but once he tastes it, he realizes that her strawberry ice cream is indeed contaminated and gets into a fight with the ice cream vendor that culminates with him killing the man. The girl considers this sequence the true beginning of her life, with the cyanide poisoning and subsequent weeks of hospitalization and hallucinations she suffers serving as a watershed moment to separate the past from her new reality.
Nothing in the rest of the book really lives up to those opening few chapters, but in a relatively short and quick-paced novel, that’s not as much of an issue as it could have been. The rest follows chapters of the character César Aira’s childhood and the different way she sees the world, and these sequences could be told in any order. The impact is far more to paint how she sees the entire world around her than to tell a chronological narrative.
A note on the gendered reading of the text as well. César Aira the author is a man, and César Aira the character is referred to as a boy by all other characters, but refers to herself as a girl and using female pronouns in all of the book’s first person narration. No commentary is made on this and the idea that the character is transgender is never raised, she just takes it as a given fact that she is a girl and never mentions that other people call her a boy. It’s a fascinating nonchalant way to approach childhood gender identity, but I will admit myself out of my depth in what to make of it. I do not have enough context in either Aira’s work or Argentinian literature to know if this is intended as a queer piece of literature or if the use of gender is a modernist approach to throw off the reader. Either way, it is an interesting nuance and I don’t recall having ever seen another work like it.
There is a lot of How I Became a Nun that I don’t feel qualified to talk about, and that is largely because it defies easy categorization. But it is appealing enough for me to want to try, which I consider a real point in its favor. And at the end of the day, it is not that long and will stay with you far past the final page.
Would I Recommend It: Yes.