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César Aira: Cómo me hice monja (How I Became a Nun)

When I first saw the title of this book, I naively assumed it was about how a woman became a nun. Indeed, as the six-year old narrator of the story was using the feminine adjective in Spanish, this was reinforced. Then the narrator’s father spoke to her, using, to my surprise, masculine adjectives. Later on, the narrator’s teacher used masculine adjectives, while the narrator continued to use the feminine adjective. (I don’t know how this has been done in the English translation but, I imagine, it would have to be less subtle, using words like girl; the casual use of the masculine/feminine adjective in Spanish is quite disconcerting and subtle.) The teacher first refers to the child simply as Aira but then, later, as César Aira, clearly identifying him as a boy. César, as I shall now call him, does the same with his friend Arturo, to whom he refers with the feminine adjective.

César’s family – César and his parents – have recently moved from Coronel Pringles to Rosario. There were no ice-creams in Coronel Pringles so when they move to Rosario, César’s father, himself a lover of ice-creams, decides to take his son for an ice-cream. He buys himself a large one and a small fruit one for César. However, one lick and César is disgusted. He spits it out and says that it is the worse thing he has ever tasted. His father is horrified and insists that he try again. César is having none of it and refuses to try anymore, despite his father’s shouting at him to do so. You are just like your whore of a mother, the father abruptly says. No cajoling or threats will change his mind. The father finishes his and then, reluctant to waste the ice-cream, has some of César’s now melted ice-cream. He, too, spits it out and admits that it is disgusting. He confronts the ice-cream vendor and when the vendor is less than helpful proceeds to beat him up. The last thing César sees before he collapses is his father holding the vendor’s face down in the ice-cream. César wakes up in hospital but first has several vivid nightmares. When he finally recovers in the children’s ward of the local hospital, he learns that the ice-cream had been tainted with cyanide – everyone is amazed that he survived – and that his father is serving eight years in prison for having killed the ice-cream vendor.

He survives hospital, though has no communication with any of the other children, and is then sent to school three months into the school year. Unlike his peers, he is unable to read so when he goes to the toilet and meets another boy who laughs at an obscenity written on the wall, he has no idea what it is but faithfully copies it down into his notebook. His mother sees it and screams at the teacher who, in turn, publicly humiliates César in front of the class. However, this does not seem to bother him too much, though he is completely ignored by the teacher for the rest of the school year. However, when he tries a new game with his mother of running on ahead and hiding, this can only lead to disaster.

Once again Aira tells a first-class story, one which is somewhat disturbing but also very original. We are left with several questions. Why does César use the feminine adjective both for himself and for Arturo? Who put cyanide in the ice-cream and why? And did he become a nun? But, as usual, you cannot go wrong with an Aira story.

Publishing history

First published by Beatriz Viterbo Editora in 1993
First published in English by New Directions in 2007
Translated by Chris Andrews