How I Became a Nunby César Aira
"A good story and first-rate social science."New York Times Book Review. A sinisterly funny modern-day Through the Looking Glass that begins with cyanide poisoning and ends in strawberry ice cream.
The idea of the Native American living in perfect harmony with nature is one of the most cherished contemporary myths. But how truthful is this larger-than-life
"A good story and first-rate social science."New York Times Book Review. A sinisterly funny modern-day Through the Looking Glass that begins with cyanide poisoning and ends in strawberry ice cream.
The idea of the Native American living in perfect harmony with nature is one of the most cherished contemporary myths. But how truthful is this larger-than-life image? According to anthropologist Shepard Krech, the first humans in North America demonstrated all of the intelligence, self-interest, flexibility, and ability to make mistakes of human beings anywhere. As Nicholas Lemann put it in The New Yorker, "Krech is more than just a conventional-wisdom overturner; he has a serious larger point to make. . . . Concepts like ecology, waste, preservation, and even the natural (as distinct from human) world are entirely anachronistic when applied to Indians in the days before the European settlement of North America." "Offers a more complex portrait of Native American peoples, one that rejects mythologies, even those that both European and Native Americans might wish to embrace."Washington Post "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 ." So starts Cesar Aira's astounding "autobiographical" novel. Intense and perfect, this invented narrative of childhood experience bristles with dramatic humor at each stage of growing up: a first ice cream, school, reading, games, friendship. The novel begins in Aira's hometown, Coronel Pringles. As self-awareness grows, the story rushes forward in a torrent of anecdotes which transform a world of uneventful happiness into something else: the anecdote becomes adventure, and adventure, fable, and then legend. Between memory and oblivion, reality and fiction, Cesar Aira's How I Became a Nun retains childhood's main treasures: the reality of fable and the delirium of invention.
A few days after his fiftieth birthday, Aira noticed the thin rim of the moon, visible despite the rising sun. When his wife explained the phenomenon to him he was shocked that for fifty years he had known nothing about "something so obvious, so visible." This epiphany led him to write How I Became a Nun. With a subtle and melancholic sense of humor he reflects on his failures, on the meaning of life and the importance of literature.
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HOW I BECAME A NUN
By César Aira
New Directions Publishing CorporationCopyright © 2005 Ediciones Era, S.A. de C.V.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMY 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.
We had moved to Rosario. For the first six years of my life, Mom, Dad and I lived in the province of Buenos Aires, in a town of which I have no recollection and to which I have not returned since: Coronel Pringles. The big city (as it seemed, by contrast) made an enormous impression on us. Within a few days of our arrival, my father kept a promise he had made: to buy me an ice cream. It was to be my first, since ice cream was not to be had in Pringles. Dad, who had been to the city as a young man, had on various occasions sung the praises of this delicacy, which he remembered as a glorious treat, although he was not able to put its special charm into words. He had described it to me, quite rightly, as something the uninitiated could not imagine, and that was all it took to plant "ice cream" in my childish mind, where it grew, taking on mythic proportions.
We made our way on foot to an ice-cream store that we had noticed the previous day. In we went. Dad ordered a fifty-cent ice cream for himself, with scoops of pistachio, sweet cream, and whisky-kumquat; for me, he ordered a ten-cent cone with a single scoop of strawberry. I loved the pink color. My frame of mind was positive. I was a devoted daughter. Dad could do no wrong in my eyes. We sat down on a sidewalk bench, under the trees (there were plane trees back then in downtown Rosario). I watched how Dad was doing it; in a matter of seconds he had disposed of his scoop of green ice cream. I dipped my little spoon in with great care and lifted it to my mouth.
No sooner had the first particles dissolved on my tongue than I felt physically ill. I had never tasted anything so revolting. I was rather fussy about food and had mastered the art of feigning disgust when I didn't feel like eating, but this went beyond anything I had ever tasted; it more than justified my worst exaggerations, even the ones I had refrained from acting out. For a fraction of a second I considered pretending. Dad had set his heart on making me happy, which was unusual, given his distant, irascible nature, averse to displays of affection, so it seemed a sin to spoil the occasion. I briefly envisioned the horrific prospect of eating the whole ice cream just to please him. It was only a thimbleful, the tiniest, kiddie-size cup, but at that moment it might as well have been a ton.
I don't know if my heroism would have stretched that far, but I didn't get a chance to put it to the test. The first mouthful provoked an involuntary grimace of disgust; Dad couldn't help but see. The grimace was almost exaggerated, expressing both the physiological reaction and its accompanying emotions: disillusion, fear, and the terrible sadness of being unable to bond with my father, even in the pursuit of a simple pleasure. Trying to hide it would have been absurd; even today, I couldn't hide it if I tried, because that grimace is still there on my face.
Everything that was going to happen was audible in his tone.
Under normal circumstances I would have burst out crying at this point and been unable to reply. Like many hypersensitive children, I was perpetually on the verge of tears. But that horrendous taste, having descended into my throat, rose again like a backlash and sent a sudden shock through my body.
"It's ... awful."
"Awful!" I shrieked in desperation.
"You don't like the ice cream?"
I remembered him saying as we walked to the store, among other remarks infused with pleasant anticipation, "We'll find out if you like ice cream." Naturally he said this assuming that I would. Don't all children? Some adults even remember their childhood as little more than a perpetual begging for ice cream. Which is why there was a tone of incredulous fatalism to his question, as if to say: "I don't believe it: even in a simple thing like this you're going to let me down."
I could see the indignation and scorn building in his eyes, but he controlled himself. He decided to give me another chance.
"Eat it. It's yummy," he said, and to prove it he scooped up a spoonful from his cone and put it into his mouth.
It was too late for me to back down now. The die was cast. In a way I didn't want to back down. I was beginning to realize that my only hope, having come this far, was to prove to Dad that what he had in his hands was revolting. I looked in horror at the pink of the ice cream. Farce was beginning to impinge on reality. Worse than that: farce was becoming reality, right in front of me, through me. I felt dizzy, but there was no turning back.
"It's awful! It's sickening!" I tried to whip myself into a frenzy. "It's foul!"
He said nothing. He stared into the empty space in front of him and quickly ate his ice cream. I was obviously getting nowhere, again. So, in a panic, I changed tack abruptly.
"It's bitter," I said.
"No, it's sweet" he replied with a forced and threatening gentleness.
"It's bitter!" I shouted.
Dad had already given up hope of getting any satisfaction from the outing. Sharing a pleasure and a moment of companionship: it was too late for all that now, and he must have been wondering how he could have been so naïve, how he could ever have thought it possible. And yet, just to rub salt into his own wound, he set about trying to convince me of my mistake. Or to convince himself that I was his mistake.
"It's a very sweet strawberry-flavored ice cream-delicious."
I shook my head.
"No? So what flavor does it have then?"
"I think it's delicious," he said calmly, gulping down another spoonful. His calmness was the most frightening thing of all.
My attempt to make peace was typically convoluted:
"I don't know how you can enjoy that junk," I said, in what was supposed to be an admiring tone of voice.
"Everyone likes ice cream," he said, white with rage. The mask of patience was slipping, and I don't know how I managed to hold back my tears. "Everyone except you, son, because you're a moron."
"No, Dad! I swear!"
"Eat that ice cream." (Coldly, sharply.) "I bought it for you to eat, you little moron."
"But I can't ...!"
"Eat it. Try it. You haven't even tried it."
Opening my eyes wide at this slur on my honesty (only a monster would have lied for the fun of it), I cried, "I swear it's horrible!"
"Of course it's not horrible. Try it." "I tried it already. I can't!"
Then he had an idea. He reverted to a condescending tone. "You know what it is? The coldness gave you a shock. Not the taste, but how cold it is. You'll soon get used to that, and then you'll realize how delicious it is."
I clutched at that straw. I wanted to believe in that possibility, which would never have occurred to me in a thousand years. But deep down l knew it was hopeless. It wasn't the coldness. I wasn't accustomed to ice-cold drinks (we didn't have a freezer) but I had tried them, and I knew it wasn't the coldness. Even so, I clung to that explanation. With extreme care I took a tiny scrape of ice cream on the tip of the spoon, and mechanically raised it to my mouth.
It was a thousand times more disgusting than the first taste. I would have spat it out, if I'd known how. I've never learnt how to spit properly. It came dribbling out between my lips.
Dad had been watching my every move out of the corner of his eye, all the while eating big spoonfuls of his ice cream. The three different-colored layers were rapidly disappearing. He flattened what remained with the little spoon, making it level with the edges of the cone, which he then proceeded to eat. I didn't know that the cones were edible; to me this was an act of savagery, and it burst the banks of my fear. I began to shake. I could feel the tears welling up.
With his mouth full, he said to me, "Try it properly, idiot! A big spoonful so you can actually taste it."
"Bbb ... but."
He finished his cone and threw the spoon on the ground. A wonder he didn't eat that too, I thought. With his hands free, he turned towards me, and I knew that the sky was falling.
"Now eat it! Can't you see it's melting?"
It was true: the peak of the ice cream was turning to liquid, and pink streams were running over the edge of the cone, dripping onto my hand and my arm, then down onto my skinny legs below the hem of my shorts. There was no way I could move now. My anxiety was mounting exponentially. Ice cream seemed the cruelest instrument of torture ever invented. Dad snatched the spoon from my other hand and dug it in. He lifted a big spoonful up to my mouth. My only defense would have been to press my lips shut and never open them again. But I couldn't. I opened my mouth wide, and in went the spoon. It came to rest on my tongue.
"Shut your mouth."
I did. Tears were already misting my vision. 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. Another big spoonful was on the way. I opened my mouth. I was already crying. Dad put the spoon in my free hand.
I choked, coughed, and began to wail.
"Now you're being stubborn. You're just doing it to annoy me."
"No, Daddy!" I stammered unintelligibly. It came out as, "Da no dy no no da."
"Don't you like it? Eh? Don't you like it? You're a moron, you know that?" I was crying. "Answer me. If you don't like it, that's OK. We'll just chuck it in the trash, end of story."
He said it as if the story could end there. The worst thing was that, because he had eaten his ice cream so quickly, his tongue had gone numb and he was talking in a way I had never heard him talk before, with a slur that made him fiercer, harder to understand, and much more scary. I thought his tongue had gone stiff with rage.
"Tell me why you don't like it. Everyone likes it except you. Tell me the reason."
Astonishingly, I was able to speak; but I had so little to say. "Because it's horrible."
"No, it's not horrible. I like it."
He took my arm and guided my hand, with the spoon in it, toward the ice cream.
"I don't," I implored.
"Just eat it, then we'll go. What was the point of bringing you?"
"But I don't like it. Please, please ..."
"All right. I'll never buy you another ice cream. But you're going to eat this one."
Mechanically I dug the spoon in. I felt faint at the mere thought that this torture was going to continue. All willpower had deserted me. I was crying openly, making no attempt to hide it. Luckily we were alone. At least Dad was spared public humiliation. He was quiet now, sitting still. He was looking at me with the same deep, visceral disgust I felt, staring at my strawberry ice cream. I wanted to say something, but I didn't know what. That I didn't like the ice cream? I had already said that. That the ice cream tasted foul? I had said that too, and it was pointless, because I couldn't get it across; it was still there inside me, impossible to convey, even after I had spoken. For him, the ice cream was exquisite, because he liked it. Everything was impossible, and always would be. I buckled and broke under the weight of tears. There was no hope of any consolation. The incommunicability cut both ways. He couldn't tell me how much he despised me, how much he hated me. This time, I had gone too far. His words could not reach me.
Chapter TwoAS I SAID AT THE END of the previous chapter, the conversation, if that was what it had been, was over. We had lapsed into a silence that swallowed even the sound of my fitful sobbing. 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, and my extreme vulnerability, indicating the scale of the universe. Dad had given up. My one last, desperate hope of turning the situation around would have been to get accustomed to the taste and finish the ice cream of my own free will. But it was impossible. I didn't need to be told. I didn't even need to think about it. Utterly helpless as I was, I had a firm grip on the reins of the impossible. My sobs echoed in that empty Rosario street, shaded by plane trees, oppressed by the still January heat. The sun was doodling among the shadows. I was crying my eyes out and the ice cream was melting flagrantly now, pink rills running down to my elbow, then dripping onto my leg.
But nothing lasts forever. Something else always happens. What happened next came from my body, from deep within, without any deliberate preparation or forethought. My solar plexus was convulsed by a retch. It was grotesque, farcical. As if something inside me was trying to show that it had vast reserves of energy ready to be unleashed at any moment. And straight away, another retch, even more exaggerated. To the many layers of my fear, one more was added: fear of being possessed by an uncontrollable physical mechanism.
Dad looked at me, as if returning from somewhere very far away. "That's enough drama."
Another retch. And another. And one more. It was a series. All dry, without any vomit. It was like a car hurtling towards an abyss, slamming on the brakes. But over and over, as if the abyss kept splitting.
A look of interest appeared on Dad's face. I knew that face so well: sallow, round, the hairline receding prematurely, the aquiline nose my sister inherited, not me, and the overly wide gap between nose and mouth, which he hid with a neatly trimmed moustache. I knew it so well, I didn't have to look. He was a predictable man. For me, at least. I must have been predictable for him too. But the retching had surprised him. He looked at me almost as if I had become an object, detached from him and his destiny. Meanwhile, I was pursuing mine. Retch. Retch. Retch.
Eventually the retching abated, without having produced any vomit. I was no longer crying. I controlled myself, clinging to a sad paralysis. Another residual retch. A bilious hiccup.
"I don't believe this. Son of a bitch ..."
He was slightly hesitant. He must have been wondering how he was going to take me home. Poor Dad, he didn't realize that he would never take me home again. Although I'm sure that if someone had told him right then, he would have been relieved.
I was still holding the cone and, what with all the retching, I was spattered with ice cream from head to foot; it was all over my clothes. So the first thing he did was to take the cone away from me; then he took the spoon from my other hand. I was very slim and petite, even for my age (I had just turned six). Dad was big without being hefty. His fingers, however (which I have inherited), were long and slender; delicately, they relieved me of my two burdens. He looked for somewhere to throw them. But he wasn't really looking because he hadn't taken his eyes off me. Then he did something surprising.
He put the spoon into the cone, dipped it into the
Excerpted from HOW I BECAME A NUN by César Aira Copyright © 2005 by Ediciones Era, S.A. de C.V.. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Nominated for a Neustadt Award and shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, César Aira was born in Coronel Pringles, Argentina, in 1949. He has published at least ninety books.
The poet Chris Andrewsteaches at the University of Western Sydney, Australia, where he is a member of the Writing and Society Research Center. He has translated books by Roberto Bolaño and César Aira for New Directions.
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Aira is a surrealist in the vein of Salvador Dali. For example, there's an underlying question about the gender of the main character of this book, a six-year-old child. Eventually we discover that even though the child thinks she is a girl, he is physically a boy--but this hard gender definition cheapens the incredible intricacy and poignancy of this psychological study. In some ways, this novel is a thriller--there's a poisoning and a murder. But these thrilling events are colored in the bizarre framework of Aira's twisted analogies and unexpected viewpoints. "How I Became A Nun" certainly isn't Aira's masterpiece (that would be "An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter," which is a must-read), but it's an odd tale, well and strangely told.