How I Became a Nun by César Aira
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
To recap, following on from my review of the brilliant An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, César Aira is a prolific Argentine avant-gardist who writes fiction through a method he refers to as a “flight forward”: he creates novellas by barreling forth without regard to formal perfection, researched content, plot coherence, or genre consistency.
Aira explains in this essay for The White Review that a contemporary writer needs to have such a procedure because the two dominant modern approaches to writing fiction—the realist mode of writing well-crafted chronicles of everyday life (Balzac, Tolstoy); and the modernist attempt to radicalize this realism through some drastic revision of its form (Flaubert, Joyce)—are exhausted. They are now the sclerotic professional gestures of the literary guild, incapable of vitality or creativity.
Luckily, there is a third alternative: the avant-garde, which, as I see it, is an attempt to recuperate the amateur gesture, and to place it on a higher level of historical synthesis. In other words, it implies immersing oneself in a field which is already autonomous and considered valid by society, and inventing new practices within that field to restore to art the ease with which it was once produced.
“Ease” is the key word there. Aira is avant-garde not because he wants to subvert the bourgeoisie or capitalism or what have you—and he even mocks in his essay the efforts of writers to “give voice to the voiceless”—but because he wants to restore to literature the creative freedom of such inventors as Balzac, whose seemingly casual inventions have by now frozen into mere professional know-how. But, echoing his own Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Aira asserts near the end of his essay, “It is not, then, a case of knowing but of acting.” He concludes his essay by asserting that the artist today is quite simply obligated to use an avant-garde procedure rather than trying to represent reality (realism) or perfect form (modernism):
In general, procedures of any kind consist in going back to the roots. As such it is the case that, nowadays, art that does not use a procedure is not truly art. This radicality is precisely what distinguishes authentic art from mere language use.
From some combination of vulgar American optimism, vulgar Anglo empiricism, and vulgar bourgeois anti-intellectualism, I highly distrust such pronunciamentos. I believe that there is still some potential left in the commitment to converting experience into form by the exercise of intelligence, which is to say that there is still some potential left in the non-avant-garde novel. (Have we truly come to the end of the permutations of form and experience? Have we really run out of experiences?) I also distrust the gesture that would cleave action from intelligence, an untenable idea with a poor track record that seems to be an overcompensatory vice of intellectuals. In short, I mostly disagree with Aira, though I have despairing days when I see exactly where he’s coming from—and I value the clarity with which he explains himself.
How does his theory work in practice? His novella How I Became a Nun is a very good test case. First published in Spanish in 1993, it is the first-person reminiscence of childhood. It promises in its first paragraph to explain a “vivid memory” of its narrator’s sixth year, after which “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.” This is, I believe, the last appearance of the titular nun conceit; the novella’s ending even makes impossible the narrator’s becoming a nun (and also perhaps makes impossible the narrator’s narration). Now if this were a different kind of book by a different kind of writer, I would interpret “becoming a nun” as an elaborate metaphor for what actually does transpire in the novella, but I don’t intend to put more thought into interpretation than Aira put into composition (remember: “It is not, then, a case of knowing”).
The actual plot concerns what happens when the narrator—whose childhood gender shifts back and forth throughout the tale and who is also sometimes named as César Aira—eats cyanide-laced strawberry ice cream on an outing with her father soon after the family moves to Rosario from Aira’s own hometown of Coronel Pringles. From this arresting two-chapter sequence, complicated by the narrator’s tortured relationship with his/her father, eight more chapters follow in loose connection to this animating incident.
We get the child’s experiences with delirious cyanide dreams, his/her time in the hospital, his/her time at school, his/her visit to his/her father in prison, and more, until the plot finally rounds back to the initial ice cream incident in the way of violent farce (“a strawberry eye scream”). Toward the end, in one of the narrator’s more potent observations, he/she describes the child’s growing awareness that life is more circle than line:
I didn’t see the cycle from the outside, as repetition, but from the inside, as a rectilinear movement.
Aire here calls into question the whole idea of writing forward, and of the avant-garde’s linear historical narrative, at the end of which they come to save art.
Much of this novella is written in ellipsis-ridden stream-of-consciousness, and much of it is uninvolving. It’s not that the closer Aira approaches realism the better he writes—the opening scene between father and son/daughter, realistic but on the edge of nightmare, may be the best thing in the book, but the narrator’s surreal dreams and his/her perhaps even more surreal friendship with a local dandy/prop-comic are the second and third best. The general weightlessness of the narrative, its flotation off the top of Aira’s head, makes it hard to hold onto or to remember, though. And Aira’s transparent reflections through the narrator on his own “procedure” (“Activities and instructions were indistinguishable”) are tiresome here, since they have no possible motivation by the characters or plot as they do in An Episode.
All in all, How I Became a Nun was only intermittently entertaining and intelligent. Aira has in a sense succeeded in taking the novel back before the 19th-century realists figured out how to write it; this narrative, alternately dull and exciting, silly and penetrating, reminds me of Cervantes or Defoe or Voltaire, but with a different set of historical justifications for their relative incoherence.
“Human beings tend to make sense of experience by imbuing it with continuity,” observes the narrator. This is what the narrator cannot do, and what his/her creator refuses to do on principle. Here the costs outweigh the benefits—and the waste of a great title might be the greatest cost of all.
 On the other hand: scrolling through the Goodreads reviews, I found this very good one by s.penekvich, which interprets the novella thusly:
Through a lonely pilgrimage of childhood, César experiments with fiction in a preparation towards a life of being an author, a sacred undertaking of servitude to Stories much like entering the Sisterhood of Nuns.
On Aira’s terms as stated in the White Review essay, this may make too much modernist meaning out of what was supposed to be avant-garde action, but it gives me a new appreciation for the book. I also note the observation, which I missed, that the other characters identify the narrator as male while the narrator identifies herself as female: perhaps, if we’re making modernist meaning, this is a comment on the gender of the artist as such in modernity.