How I Became a Nun by César Aira
Published: February 2007
Publisher: New Directions
“Layers of cloudy inter-relatedness and vague hints of consequence create an intriguing puzzle — one that simultaneously begs to be deciphered and defies that process.”ReviewMany novels succeed by virtue of their authors’ abilities to take a single event or moment and parse it into individual elements: background information, subtle details, motivations, consequences. The reader, in this model, is taken from a point of relative confusion to a point of clarity.
This is a time-tested formula, but there are writers capable of succeeding by following a model that runs contrary to this one.César Aira’s How I Became a Nun starts with a small but not insignificant event: the day the narrator’s father delivers on a long-standing promise to treat her (or him — Aira changes the child’s gender every few pages) to an ice-cream cone. But the child hates the taste so much that she ends up sobbing violently at the thought of another mouthful. To reveal what happens next would spoil the tragic story, but it changes the child’s life.The beauty of this slim book (only 117 pages) lies in the fact that the author doesn’t, as might be expected, demonstrate precisely how and why this event alters the child’s life.
Instead, Aira adds layers of confusion and complication to the story, showing that although moments in our lives are dependent on their predecessors, we shouldn’t expect them to be predictable, malleable, or any easier to understand. Aira describes the months following the tragedy, and the child’s bizarre preoccupations, but
intentionally stops short of tying everything together into a linear, cause-and-effect narrative. In Aira’s world, we move from a relatively simple state of confusion, one that urges us onward, to a wholly complex one.
Layers of cloudy inter-relatedness and vague hints of consequence create an intriguing puzzle — one that simultaneously begs to be deciphered and defies that process. How I Became a Nun suggests that the passage of time can, and often does, make events more confusing and less defined, so that for the reader, any understanding of events that occurred in the first chapter will disintegrate by the last. But you will have much to think about.- Tom Roberge