Get Thee to a Nunnery

Reviews | published in Real Change on Nov. 7th, 2007
Subject: Cesar Aira

How I Became a Nun” by César Aira, Translated by Chris Andrews, New Directions, 2007, Paperback, 117 pages, $13.95

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I scream, you scream, we all scream for… well, you know. But chances are, none of us is screaming as loudly or as violently as six-year-old César Aira.

Little César has just moved with his family from a sleepy Argentine town to the metropolis of Rosario and, to celebrate big-city style, his father offers to take the lad for ice cream. It’ll be a new sensation for César — refrigeration didn’t exist in his old town — one that his father feels confident his son will enjoy. So, after buying himself a 50-cent double-dip cone of pistachio and whisky-kumquat, he hands his son a kiddie cone of strawberry, pink and freezing cold. César spoons the first taste into his mouth: “No sooner had the first particles dissolved on my tongue than I felt physically ill.”

César complains to his dad the ice cream tastes terrible, but pops will have none of it. He forces the boy to eat it. César gags. His father berates the child’s foolishness. Ashamed and in tears, the boy consumes more of the not-so-sweet treat. Tired of his antics and ready to prove his son wrong, his father tries the strawberry for himself. César was right: it’s sickening.

nraged, the father confronts the ice-cream seller, leading to an argument — César’s dad has issues with anger, in case you haven’t noticed — that culminates in the seller’s death.

But César has little time to notice. He’s retching his guts out, spewing not only the pink liquid, but all manner of bile everywhere. What’s wrong? What is it, César? He’s been poisoned. Cyanide. Help him, someone please, help that poor little boy! And as César’s dad is hauled away to jail, César is rushed to a hospital, where, over the course of a month, he recuperates.

Or maybe he doesn’t. Mostly during that time, he falls into an hallucinatory, ellipsis-filled spell. “… I lost consciousness, my body began to dissolve…literally…My organs deliquesced…turning to green and blue bags of slime hanging from stony necroses…with no life but the cold fire of infection…and decomposition…swellings…bundles of ganglia…. A heart the size of a lentil….”

And it’s at this point in How I Became a Nun that the already maniacally twisted becomes more so. Little César Aira — who just happens to bear the name of the novella’s author; wait: how can that be? — undergoes all manner of torture: an overbearing mother, a dwarf who utters healing “Hail Mary’s,” a distraught teacher, a prison visit, a seduction by a radio, a friendship with a little boy that ends in blood. Oh. And somewhere along the line, César switches from being a boy to a girl.

Which, as everyone knows, including Christine Jorgensen, is clearly impossible without the aid of hormones and surgery. At least everyone other than Aira, the narrator and the author. For both of them, it’s entirely plausible. More than that, it’s truth, as the narrator affirms: “Everything in this story I am telling is guaranteed by my perfect memory. My memory has stored away each passing instant.”

And honestly, how can you deny the world as experienced by a young Argentine boy/girl caught in the grips of cyanide poisoning? How can you deny the world as conceived by an Argentine author who writes about the horror of food poisoning that, having occurred in the 1950s, tormented Latin America, with such terrifying imagination, you feel compelled to know how it will end, even though you’re sure the result will be horrible?

And it is a horrible end indeed, one so unexpected that, by the time you read it on the last page of this brilliantly imagined work, you’ll feel your throat go cold. And you won’t be able to find that little tinkle announcing the ice cream man so pleasant again.

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