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.


  1. This is a good write-up of Aira, and I like how you connect him to Pessoa in the end. There are two books by Aira in Portuguese, but I'll try to read them in Spanish.

    1. Thanks, Miguel. The passage from Pessoa was arresting. A good advice to writers if they can take advantage of it.

  2. I took the gender confusion less as a weighty statement about gender and more as a storyteller's prank the first time around, largely because so much of the book is devoted to Young Master César's propensity for lying (storytelling). However, your post reminds me of how simultaneously funny and horrifying the first parts of the book were--esp. the narrator's recollections of how ingesting the poisoned ice cream just couldn't be comprehended by the father: how could anyone not like ice cream? Anyway, thanks for reviewing this for Doom 2 and for including the bits about Ghosts and Fuentes. Fascinating tidbits!

    1. The gender is a good prank too, yes, but a methodical one. The writer is consistent about it. As for the other hilarious pranks, I suppose the contradictions and unreliability in narration are a direct result of the no-looking back writing method.

      I had a similar experience with a frozen yogurt. Yayks!

  3. Rise - Given Aira's sense of humor and his proliferation of inventive, entertaining conceits, it's easy to omit thinking about a political context to his novels, so it's great to have your post to orient them that way. The Pessoa quotation is a good one - and ingenious of you to use it in regard to Aira.

    That's at least twice that Aira has used ice cream in his work, both times in ways that abruptly take away from its more positive connotations. I've wondered whether it's a kind of flag to signal that his work isn't just innocent confectionery.

  4. The Pessoa passage is a serendipitous find. I'm dipping in and out of The Book of Disquiet.

    He does recycle some images (another example: lightning), albeit in various flavoring. Each miniature story may be imperfect but it's always a pleasure to sample. Because one doesn't know if it's a pure flavor or a smoothie.

    And true, politics may be far from anyone's mind when reading him on account of his comical tendencies. A "political Aira" may as well be a "political Kafka". Or Borges. The possibility of double meaning is rejected by the spirit of not taking himself seriously.

  5. Rise - Tom (Amateur Reader) pointed me in the direction of your blog and this post in particular as I recently read and posted a few thoughts on Aira's Ghosts. My piece isn't a review as such (and it's different to my usual book reviews), but a passage on wine caught my eye, and I posted the quote along with a wine match.

    Ghosts was my first experience of Aria, and whilst I found much to enjoy, I wasn't quite sure what to make of the middle section where it slips more deeply into philosophical territory. I loved the ghosts themselves (and the fact that they don't conform to the typical ghostly stereotypes), the dry humour and some of the ideas in the book - the ghost as a wine cooler/transformer, for example. To be honest, I got a bit lost in the middle, but I did like the final section focusing on Patri, the choice she has to make and the ending itself. I'm interested to read around the idea that Aira's ghosts may be Desaparecidos, so I'll follow the link to that essay you've mentioned.

    Your blog comes highly recommended by Richard and Tom, so I'll add you to my reader. All the best, Jacqui. (I blog at JacquiWine's Journal on WP)

  6. Thanks, Jacqui! The philosophical mid-part is where César Aira most likely messes up with the reader. The ghosts are a great symbol or metaphor for something. So is the brilliant ending. But as W. G. Sebald said somewhere about how symbols work – they usually have multiple meanings if they are any good at all.

    I've read your post on it. The playful passage about the wine is a good time as any to drink to the beautiful absurdity of ghosts enhancing the spirit of the wine. :)