‘How I Became A Nun’ by Cesar Aira (1993)
Translated by Chris Andrews
After reading Roberto Bolano with decidedly mixed results, I decided to read Cesar Aira after seeing that ‘How I Became a Nun’ got a grade of A- in Complete Review and was positively reviewed by The Mookse and the Gripes. My ultimate quest is to find a contemporary South American writer that I like as much as the many South American writers I discovered and loved in the 1980s, writers such as Manuel Puig, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Amado, Julio Cortazar, and extending all the way back to Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (perhaps the greatest of them all). There are too many fine South American novelists to list all.
Cesar Aira is an Argentine writer like Manuel Puig and Julio Cortazar in the above list. Even though he has published more than fifty books, only recently has his work been getting translated into English.
‘How I Became a Nun’ starts and ends vividly. The main character in the novel is a seven year old girl (boy?) This short novel starts out innocently enough with the father buying her/him an ice cream cone. From there the rest of the story follows.
On the back cover Cesar Aira is quoted as being “firmly in the tradition of W. G. Sebald and Jorge Luis Borges.” These are two writers I have not had much success with. Sebald has gotten incredible press in recent years, but ‘The Emigrants’ didn’t have much of an impact for me. I have the same problem with ‘How I Became a Nun’ as I do with Sebald. Sandwiched between the vivid beginning and vivid ending of ‘How I Became a Nun’ are about eighty pages of what I call ‘time and remembrance’ writing. When I read fiction, I guess I need dramatic immediacy, urgent confrontational situations and emotional impact. Strong characters. I love dialogue, because that usually means the characters are reacting intently to each other. Reminiscing or even the most profound memory just does not interest me that much.
After watching a TV show or movie, my father used to say, “It’s good, but I don’t like it.” I wouldn’t say that I didn’t like ‘How I Became a Nun’, I’m sure for many, like Complete Review, this would be a wonderful novel. My quest for new South American writers continues.