Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Douglas Messerli | A Gap in the Wall (on Cesar Aira's How I Became a Nun)

Douglas Messerli

César Aira How I Became a Nun, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (New York: New Directions, 2007)

Although Argentinean author César Aira has the potential of becoming a very popular writer in English, some of his work, such as this 2007 translation of Cómo me hice monja, is an acquired taste.

That is perhaps rather strange way to begin writing on a fiction that itself starts with the idea of "taste." A young boy (more often referred to in this self-narrated tale, as a young girl) is taken by his father for an ice cream treat, the first apparently of his life, since they have recently moved from the more isolated Coronel Pringles to the large city of Rosario. With great anticipation of his son's delight, the father awaits the child's lick of the strawberry ice cream, but the over-reactive child immediately spits it out in disgust. As the child observes, "...that horrendous taste, having descended into my throat, rose again like a backlash and sent a sudden shock through my body." The dismayed and somewhat appalled father insists the boy eat it, which results in a verbal battle between the two and ends with the boy's bending over in a series of retchings. When the father finally tastes the substance, which his son argues is "bitter" to the father's repeated insistence that it's "sweet," he realizes that there is indeed something terribly wrong with it. Insisting that the manager that he has sold him something rotten, the father reacts to the vendor's placid denial by stuffing his face into a drum of the strawberry substance, ultimately killing him.

This almost absurdist situation might be hilariously funny except for the fact that the father is sentenced to eight years of imprisonment, and the boy-girl who has consumed substance, contaminated with cyanide, is sickened for several months.

As the narrator—who shares the name of the author of the book—tells us, the child's life begins with this series of events, which soon leads to his entering school months later than his peers, finding himself intellectually behind his fellow students; in the mere few months that he has missed, they have all learned to read.

A minor mishap at the school to which the boy-girl's mother overreacts leads to even greater isolation for the child, as the teacher refuses to even recognize his/her existence. This, in turn, leads to the creation of an imaginary world for the child, who, in Oulipo-like structures, creates a private world for each of his classmates, suffering in the young César's imagination from various learning disabilities, which he must overcome in order to be able to teach them. His father's absence also brings him closer to his over-protective mother, and together the two enter another imaginary world where they daily encounter radio plays, one devoted to the childhood of Jesus Christ, one to historical events told through the voice of an elderly grandmother, and the third to the complex adult-like situations inherent in any soap opera.

All of these imaginative situations, in the hands of a lesser fabulist, would seem to be perfect fodder for a surrealist or absurdist work. But as strange as these stories may seem, Aira transforms them into tales with psychological possibilities so that we are almost stunned by their impossible results.

Another game the child begins to play is something experienced by many children growing up. It might be described as "losing mother," wherein the object, on shopping trips with his mother, is to keep several steps behind her, slightly hiding behind various trees, individuals, and signs until she loses sight of her offspring, and later, loses him/her entirely. On one such outing, César is picked up by a woman claiming to be an old friend of the family from Coronel Pringles, and offers the girl/boy an ice cream. Despite the child's knowledge that this woman is lying, she politely goes along with the series of events, which ends with the woman admitting that she is the wife of the murdered ice cream vendor and is seeing revenge. Almost as suddenly, she throws the child into a drum of strawberry ice cream, like some madly possessed witch, suffocating him/her to death.

For the logic-oriented reader, this is the last straw in what seems now to be a series of tall-tales by an oversensitive child. How could the story have been told by a dead girl/boy? And what on earth does any of this have to do with "becoming a nun?"

On one level, of course, nothing does have anything to do with the other. Instead of presenting us with a tale bound to the psychological realism he has pretended, the author has shown us the logic of storytelling, given us a glimpse of a world created by the written word instead of natural events. Aira writes of the moment César, the child, first discovers that difference:

The drama started later on....The drama was triggered for me by the
realization that the mute scene I was witnessing, the teacher's and
pupils' abstract mimicry, affected me vitally. It was my story, not someone
else's. ....I was and was not involved in it; I was present, but not
a participant, or participating only by my refusal, like a gap in the
performance, but that gap was me! At least I had finally realized
(and for this I should have been grateful) why I was missing out on
the mental soundtrack: I couldn't read. My little classmates could.
By some sort of miracle, they had learned how to in those first three
months; an abyss had opened between them and me. An inexplicable
abyss, a void, precisely because there was no way to account for the

Some time after this event, however, César discovers that he too can now read. But for him the experience of that gap will remain forever, and the written word of his fellow students' assignments are transferred through his imagination into acts. On a visit to his father at the prison, César soon finds "a gap in the wall," entering the prison itself and becoming lost until the following day. In a sense, all his stories exist in a "gap," in a void where reality cannot enter.
Such a world, of course, is, like a nunnery, an isolated world, a world in which the novitiate or novice removes herself from the world, dedicating her life to a higher being. Aira's dedication is to language, to the magical world of fiction that necessarily, at least temporarily, estranges one from the world at large, the world we know as "reality." An utter faith in his fabulous tales is all this author can offer—but that is everything to those who love, as I do, such marvelous fantasies which become more real in the mind that everyday life.

Los Angeles, June 11, 2008

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