How I Became a Nun (1993) by César Aira, tr. Chris Andrews (New Directions, 2006)
In my second reading of How I Became a Nun I suggested how, borrowing from Pessoa in The Book of Disquiet, gender identification may be a strategy to break grammatical rules and assert freedom of choice in spite of the restrictions of usage. In subverting the conventions of language, where 'he' must refer only to a male person, the novelist was flouting style guides. 'Free radicals' were not always welcome in the body of literature. They were operating outside the system, outside the norm. The heresy was already prefigured in the novel's first paragraph.
My story, the story of "how I became a nun," began very early in my life; I had just turned six. The beginning is marked by a vivid memory, which I can reconstruct down to the last detail. Before, there is nothing, and after, 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.
The self-referential nod to the title was a programmatic approach to metafiction. Yes, this was the story of the narrator turning into a nun, right down to the moment when she took the veil. These are gendered nouns. Somehow, this story (my story) was also the story of the writing of this novel (called "how I became a nun"). The story could be reconstructed to the last detail. There's reliability for you.
It was as if Bernardo Soares was intoning: Today, during a break from feeling, I reflected on the style of my prose. It was a fluid telling of the child César who identified (insisted) on the feminine gender every step of the way. In twenty-three instances* César viewed herself as a girl.
From the point of view of others, from five viewpoints** actually, dear little César was all of a boy. This "boy" had a militant streak. He got into some thorny situations and miraculous experiences.
Was the child's gender preference only a deep-seated stubbornness? Was the novelist's gender preference a deliberate violation of grammar? Was it not an innocent compositional choice? Or a mock display of freedom from the constraints of gender and rules?
* Pages in the book and the exact feminine gender identification.
2 devoted daughter
23 little girl
28 difficult girl
42 little girl
54 fourteen-year old Argentinean girl
92 normal little girl
94 girl in the crowd
96 supreme mistress
107 idiotic daughter
111 little girl
113 another girl
116 six-year old girl
** Pages in the book, the masculine gender perception, and the person speaking.
6 "Everyone except you, son, because you're a moron." (father)
16 "Is it my fault if the boy didn't like it?" (ice cream vendor)
34 "And how are we today, young Master César?" (doctor)
56 "That Aira boy ... He's here among you, and he doesn't seem any different. Maybe you haven't noticed him, he's so insignificant. But he's here. Don't be fooled. I always tell you the true, the theck, the trove. You are good, clever, sweet children. Even the ones who are naughty, or have to repeat, or get into fights all the time. You're normal, you're all the same, because you have a second mother. Aira is a moron. He might seem the same as you, but he's a moron all the same. He's a monster. He doesn't have a second mother. He's wicked. He wants to see me dead. He wants to kill me. But he's not going to succeed!" (Miss Rodríguez, the teacher)
57-58 "He want's to kill you too. Not me. You. But don't be afraid, teacher will protect you. You have to watch out for vipers, tarantulas and rabid dogs. And especially for Aira. Aira is a thousand times worse. Watch out for Aira! Don't go near him! Don't talk to him! Don't look at him! Pretend he doesn't exist. I always thought he was a moron, but I had nnno idea ... I dddidn't realize ... Now I do! Don't let him dirty you! Don't let him infect you! Don't even give him the time of day! Don't breathe when he's near. Die of asphyxiation if you have to, just so long as you freeze him out. He's a monster, a killer! And your mothers will cry if you die. They'll try and blame me, I know them. But if you watch out for the monster nothing will happen. Pretend he doesn't exist, pretend he's not there. If you don't talk to him or look at him, he can't harm you." (Miss Rodríguez, the teacher)
67 "César Aira ... a boy by the name of César Aira." (voices from loudspeakers)