11 November 2013

A broken grammar

How I Became a Nun by César Aira, translated by Chris Andrews (New Directions, 2006)

"Seneca says that culture is what always saves that country", wrote the late Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes in La silla del águila (2002, The Eagle's Throne). "César Aira is, after all, the first Argentinian to receive the Nobel Prize." Fuentes's speculative fiction was set in the year 2020 when Argentina was 'Balkanised' ("once a united republic and now an appalling assortment of petty 'independent' republics ... each one with its own local Facundo, its own autocratic local boss"). Aira's Nobel win and hypothetical role as a messiah figure may or may not be a compliment from Fuentes. The Mexican may be retaliating against the Argentinian's audacity to make him a comic character in the madcap science fiction El congreso de literatura (1999).

Fuentes's own epistolary novel was a political farce. It imagined a presidential power struggle after the breakdown of Mexico's satellite communications system. Aira's novels, on their own, were almost non-political (or apolitical, what is the difference). But in an excellent essay by the critic Marcela Valdes in The Nation, one was given to see in Aira's fiction a reflection of socio-political and economic realities of Argentina during its tumultuous history. Valdes's political reading of Los fantasmas (1990, Ghosts) was an example.

Set in an unfinished luxury apartment building in Buenos Aires, the novel recounts a day in the lives of a group of construction workers who can see the dead. The ghosts hover around the building’s concrete skeleton, and look much like the workers they haunt. They’re strong young men “with small feet, and rough hands”; they’re covered with a “fine cement dust” that looks “dirty.” The building’s wealthy owners, and their architects and decorators, can’t see the phantoms. But the workers treat them with familiarity, grabbing the ghosts’ hilariously elastic penises and shoving bottles of wine down their throats—a technique that not only cools bad wine but also improves its quality.

A few details suggest that the ghosts may be desaparecidos. The first is their gender and youth: 70 percent of the disappeared were men, and 81 percent of them were between the ages of 16 and 35. The second is their revulsion at the sight and smell of grilling. When the workers cook steaks for lunch, the ghosts “disappeared…as they did every day when the smell of meat rose from the grill, as if it were detrimental to them.” In the slang of Argentina’s detention centers, the word for “grill”—parrilla—was also the word for the metal beds where captives were tortured with electricity. As one survivor recalled, “Despite the bonds [tied around captives’ hands and feet], when on the ‘grill’ one jumps, twists, moves about and tries to avoid contact with the burning, cutting iron bars.”

Notwithstanding the weighty politico-historical undertones of Aira's fiction, the comic surface of his stories was entertaining enough. The diversity and sheer number of his works were indications of an inventive imagination willing to push the boundaries of novelistic form and content. What makes reading him addictive was the flexible range of interpretations readers can apply to his allegories. In reading between the lines, one was parsing out a challenging puzzle.

In Cómo me hice monja (1993, How I Became a Nun), Aira told a straightforward story of a hypersensitive, intelligent, and self-conscious six-year old child (boy or girl, it was not clear) who was taken by his/her father for a first taste of ice cream. The bonding moment between father and child over ice cream was broken when the strawberry flavored ice cream the child ate turned out to be contaminated by cyanide. The father, very proud to introduce to his young César the delicious delicacy, was disappointed at the revolting reaction of the child gagging from the bitter taste of the spoiled ice cream. He disbelieved the child's reaction and started badgering and scolding him for ruining the day. César, meanwhile, was undergoing a painful epiphany. His first taste of poisonous reality: "I looked in horror at the pink of the ice cream. Farce was beginning to impinge on reality. Worse than that: farce was becoming reality, right in front of me, through me."

Mechanically I dug the spoon in. I felt faint at the mere thought that this torture was going to continue. All willpower had deserted me. I was crying openly, making no attempt to hide it. [...] I wanted to say something, but I didn't know what. That I didn't like the ice cream? I had already said that. That the ice cream tasted foul? I had said that too, and it was pointless, because I couldn't get it across; it was still there inside me, impossible to convey, even after I had spoken.

That unacceptable experience, of being forced to ingest poison, was torture to an innocent child. This was also the revolting experience of an innocent person (someone wrongly accused of crimes, some member of the political opposition) forcibly told to put into his system some poisonous concoction or idea or propaganda. His torturer was deaf and blind to any of his protestations.

The novel has clear autobiographical elements. It was set in Rosario, after the family of the child character César Aira moved from Pringles. The actual César Aira was born in Coronel Pringles in 1949. The temporal setting of the novel could then be set in the mid-1950s Argentina, during and after the military government of Juan Perón. It was a time of frequent coups d'état, crippling inflation, detention and torture of those in the opposition, social unrest. The political atmosphere was very like a poison, a wave of food poisoning.

I was a victim of the terrible cyanide contamination ... the great wave of lethal food poisoning that was sweeping Argentina and the neighboring countries that year ... The air was thick with fear, because it struck when least expected; any foodstuff could be contaminated, even the most natural ... potatoes, pumpkin, meat, rice, oranges ... In my case it was ice cream. But even food lovingly prepared at home could be poisoned ... Children were the most vulnerable ... they had no resistance. Housewives were at their wit's end. A mother could kill her baby with baby food. It was a lottery ... So many conflicting theories ... So many deaths ... The cemeteries were filling up with little tombstones, tenderly inscribed ... Our angel has flown to the arms of the Lord ... signed: his inconsolable parents. I got off lightly. I survived. I lived to tell the tale ... but in the end I had to pay a high price ... like they say: Buy cheaply, pay dearly.

He/she was a survivor of the times. But the high price little César the erstwhile ice cream survivor will pay in the end will still involve a kind of dealing with poison. The whole story was in fact a sort of adjusting to the fearful existence, to the paranoid atmosphere of living in troubled times.


The story of the child César Aira was told in retrospective manner. The older person was looking back on the comic misadventures of a (her) younger self. It was notable how gender identification was handled in the story. It was, presumably, the story of a child's coming of age, his/her trials and tribulations until becoming a virtual nun. And yet the child character was viewed as a "boy" by persons around her. During school break, the child went to a "boy's bathroom at school". Five times, to be exact, the character was referred to in the masculine – as "son", "boy", or "young Master César" – each by a different character, while there were some 23 separate incidents where the character referred to herself in the feminine – as "girl", "little girl", "daughter", or "mistress". (These are the translator's word choices. I'm not sure how the original Spanish handled the gender shifts.) For good measure, the child once liked to own dolls. 

It was only the child who viewed herself as a girl. What to make of this intentional gender confusion? For all intents and purposes this was hardly a queer or LGBT story. It seemed whimsical on the part of Aira. Perhaps his infamous writing method was to blame, the method of not revising what he already put to paper. At one point in the narrative, the writer probably decided to be consistently vague about his character's gender. 

It was a devotion to fiction's capacity to surprise. The mixed use of gender, together with the wicked, crazy ending of the story, was seemingly the product of the fertile imagination of the little child César Aira, who throughout the story was narrating (constructing) hysterical scenarios left and right.

But there was another possible reason for Aira's unorthodox telling. It had to do with the embrace of unorthodoxy itself, spontaneous writing as an act of resistance to or transgression of narrative convention. The consistency of transgression was nun-like, or martyr-like; that is, the consistency to be arbitrary and experimental in storytelling, to embrace unorthodox narrative principles.

Aira may simply be breaking the rules of grammar. He must have closely followed Fernando Pessoa's principles of creative writing. In Livro do Desassossego (The Book of Disquiet), the Portuguese poet revealed his writing system.

Today, during a break from feeling, I reflected on the style of my prose. Exactly how do I write? I had, like many others, the perverted desire to adopt a system and a norm. It's true that I wrote before having the norm and the system, but so did everyone else.

Analysing myself this afternoon, I've discovered that my stylistic system is based on two principles, and in the best tradition of the best classical writers I immediately uphold these two principles as general foundations of all good style: 1) to express what one feels exactly as it is felt – clearly, if it is clear; obscurely, if obscure; confusedly, if confused – and 2) to understand that grammar is an instrument and not a law.

Let's suppose there's a girl with masculine gestures. An ordinary human creature will say, 'That girl acts like a boy.' Another ordinary human creature, with some awareness that to speak is to tell, will say, 'That girl is a boy.' Yet another, equally aware of the duties of expression, but inspired by a fondness for concision (which is the sensual delight of thought), will say, 'That boy.' I'll say, 'She's a boy', violating one of the basic rules of grammar – that pronouns must agree in gender and number with the nouns they refer to. And I'll have spoken correctly; I'll have spoken absolutely, photographically, outside the norm, the accepted, the insipid. I won't have spoken, I'll have told.

To speak "absolutely, photographically, outside the norm, the accepted, the insipid", that was Aira alright. In Pessoa's simple summation: "Let grammar rule the man who doesn't know how to think what he feels. Let it serve those who are in command when they express themselves."

In How I Became a Nun, Aira was in command of a singular childish consciousness. Breaking the rules of grammar, he proceeded with his cultivated style ascetically. It was not that different from clinging tenaciously to a chosen faith. From taking the veil, becoming a full pledged nun. Taking the vows and entering the sacred convent of fiction. Irreverently, of course.

Read for the second edition of Caravana de recuerdos's Argentinean Literature of Doom.

02 November 2013

The gospel according to Don Juan

Don Juan: His Own Version by Peter Handke, translated by Krishna Winston (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)


The German Literature Month is in full swing. I have chosen to read Peter Handke's version of the ageless lover boy Don Juan, in the latter's "own version". We have a confessional narrative, told in a frame story. Don Juan was telling his adventures and exploits, sexual and otherwise, to a cook in a French country inn. We learned many things about the lover. But what appears to be a saucy story was anything but that. The epigraph gave everything away. Da Ponte and Mozart: Chi son' io tu non saprai. Who I am, you shall not know.

Don Juan was recently mourning the death of his son. To distract himself, he went around Europe and Middle East and, alas, found women attracted to him, to his "active gaze". His travels lasted for a week, what was known as his womanweek, his seven days of womantime. One day at a time, he told the cook about what happened on a particular day exactly a week before. He forbade the cook to ask questions or make unnecessary comments about the story he is telling. It was enough that Don Juan make a truthful account in his own version, in his own way.

Handke is a modern novelist. And by "modern" I meant someone interested in a story about stories, in the artifice behind narratives. The cook was an easy stand-in for the novelist. But there are several indications he was subbing for the reader.

Even my reading meant less and less to me. On the morning of the day when Don Juan turned up, on the run, I decided to give books a rest. Although I was in the middle of reading two seminal works, seminal not only for French literature and not only for the seventeenth century—Jean Racine's defense of the nuns of Port-Royal and Blaise Pascal's attack on the nuns' Jesuit detractors—I concluded from one minute to the next that I had read enough, at least for now. Read enough? My thought that morning was even more radical: "Enough of reading!" Yet I had been a reader all my life. A chef and a reader. What a chef. What a reader....

Don Juan's coming on that May afternoon took the place of reading for me. It was more than a mere substitute. The very fact that it was "Don Juan," instead of all those devilishly clever Jesuit padres from the seventeenth century, and also instead of a Lucien Leuwen and Raskolnikov, let us say, or a Mynheer Peeperkorn, a Señor Buendia, an Inspector Maigret, came as a breath of fresh air. At the same time, Don Juan's arrival literally offered me the sense of widening my inner horizons, of bursting boundaries, that I usually experienced only from reading, from excited (and exciting), blissful reading.

The very fact that it was "Don Juan" should be enough liability for a writer to resurrect. The story, like the best love affairs, was cloaked in secrecy, drenched in the artifice of literary construction. It is short, 101 pages of distilled writing, just the right enough length for Handke to engage in César Aira-like "flight forward". Like Aira, Handke was novel-building through accumulation of seemingly benign details that suddenly acquired import—previously overlooked yet now sufficiently noticed because they were necessary for the story to proceed, to move forward into the continuum. Take for instance the scene when DJ was spying on a couple having sex al fresco.

Not until the week following this experience, when Don Juan was thinking about the couple, celebrating their one-week anniversary, as it were—he was sure he was celebrating it, and how!—did it occur to him that the labiate flowers on the broom branches framing the couple had been intensely yellow.


Not until the two naked couple in the hollow were apparently attacked by flies and ants did he turn to leave. Actually the insects had been there all along, but only now did they seem to start annoying the couple. Up to the last moment Don Juan had been waiting for something to happen with the two of them that would alter the course of events. What, for instance? No questions! he scolded me.

DJ was narrating from memory, and from memory details were added as if they were just remembered at the moment of the telling, exactly a week after. Not until the week following this experience ... did it occur to him. Thoughts occurred to him spontaneously, right there and then. Actually the insects had been there all along. DJ (the novelist) was waiting for things to add to the picture around the couple, the verisimilitude of their naked situation, perhaps to alter the course of events, if not to complete the story. Only now did they seem to start annoying the couple. There's the perfect excuse to clarify the version of things first witnessed.

As told by Handke, the story of DJ and his sexual encounters ("if in Georgia the floorboards had creaked under him and the woman there, here it was sand that crunched under them") was more than a pretext to move the story along. It was the vehicle for the character of DJ to go on with his sad life. He (Handke) had the baggage of fiction to consider, the appeal to make alive details surrounding a fictive character.

How to produce a narrative that can defy clichés? "In the end it was she who fled from DJ, and unlike his escapes, hers took place head over heels, without a moment's reflection, blindly, including movie-style collisions with the ferry passengers, knocking-over of metal drums, and the like." Perhaps to revivify the tired story-telling techniques, let the story embrace clichés, movie-style; apply chaos and stuff, and the like. It was a subtle approach to beat the daily grind of living.

It did not disturb him that most of  what had transpired before was repeated, and repeated again, with the women on the subsequent days of the week, nor did it cause him to hesitate, let alone recoil—he had recoiled for a moment only the first time, when there was not yet any question of repetition. Instead the repetition developed its own dynamics, each time more powerfully, and he let himself be carried along as if it were entirely natural, a law he had to comply with, if not a commandment. That was how it had to be: he had to do or avoid the same things with this woman here as with the one from the previous day. The very repetition lent him courage.

The inertia of repetition was a thing to be prized. The endless routine of things and his struggle to subvert it by seeking variations gave him comfort. Every experience of lovemaking was a consolation, a balm against death and irrelevance.

It goes without saying that I was not allowed to ask how they had got there. And I did not ask. It was enough that it seemed possible to me. Nor did I ask where Don Juan spent the night in Damascus, or where his servant slept. That was left to my imagination, as was the case with the next stages of the journey. But I did not need to picture settings, which would only have interfered with my listening, just as I did not need the Syrian weather report: it was clear that there, too, the May air was filled with swirling poplar-blossom fluff, and, as the story continued, I saw it rolling along the reddish yellow earth and floating past the likewise reddish yellow walls, while the material in its wake seemed increasingly weightless.

It was enough that the loose story hang together, that plausibility not be a total slave to logic. As long as fiction, its fruitful possibilities, seemed possible enough. The writer was there to trace the outline of a recognizable character, a timeless and repetitious lover. DJ's gospel was a version of a story that works enough for him. Apparently, by virtue of his close attention, the listener too (and who else was paying attention) has his own made up story. He has his own version.