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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

How I became a Nun

César Aira

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To purchase How I became a Nun

Title: How I became a Nun
Author: César Aira
Genre: Novel
Written: 1993 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 123 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: How I became a Nun - US
Cómo me hice monja - US
How I became a Nun - UK
How I became a Nun - Canada
How I became a Nun - India
Wie ich Nonne wurde - Deutschland
Come diventai monaca - Italia
Cómo me hice monja - España
  • Spanish title: Cómo me hice monja
  • Translated by Chris Andrews

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Our Assessment:

A- : charmingly odd

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Review . 7-8/2007 Aura Estrada
NZZ . 23/6/2015 Eberhard Geisler
The NY Sun . 21/2/2007 Benjamin Lytal
The NY Times Book Rev. . 13/5/2007 Jasha Hoffman
World Lit. Today . 7-8/2007 Will H. Corral
Die Zeit . 13/5/2015 Merten Worthmann

  From the Reviews:
  • "For Proust, unraveling the mysteries of childhood and memory explain the inexplicable. Aira goes the opposite way. He recreates the experience of the inexplicable, as if to show that the literary enterprise is not the sterile, phantasmagoric land some critics insist it has become: it is still pregnant with possibilities. If it is a sign of genius to create the obvious, Aira -- one of the most idiosyncratic writers of his generation -- has crafted a true masterpiece for our times." - Aura Estrada, Boston Review

  • "Das Buch zeigt, dass Airas Schreibprinzip die Figur des Rhizoms, eines wurzelartigen, unter- oder oberirdisch wachsenden Sprossachsensystems. Es gibt damit keine klassische Teleologie mehr, sondern stattdessen ein Weiterwuchern in alle Richtungen, wobei keine einzelne Ausbildung Vorrang vor anderen geniesst." - Eberhard Geisler, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Too smart but also too childish, Mr. Aira's best moments here are hampered by the coy situation he has created." - Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun

  • "Despite Chris Andrew's clear translation, Aira's prose seems hesitant, his imaginative flights clipped by the 6-year-old mind he is trying to inhabit. As a result, these perplexing episodes don't quite add up to a credible story. But Aira does evoke a sense of childhood that is chilling and bitterwsweet -- like a poisoned cone of strawberry ice cream." - Jasha Hoffman, The New York Times Book Review

  • "As always happens with Aira, the apparently "insignificant" subtexts are what really matter: deception, fantasy and the grotesque, fear and guilt, horror, illusion, literary allusions, violence (the vendor’s wife’s; the narrator’s father kills him), and, to a lesser extent (despite the title), sexual identity." - Will H. Corral, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of this novella, named -- or at least called -- 'César Aira', begins the story:

     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.
       Nevertheless, this is not a story of religious awakening or withdrawal from life into a convent or pretty much anything of that sort. For one thing, the book begins with the narrator at age six, and it recounts only the events of that year: at the end the narrator is still only six. It also turns out not to be too autobiographical, concluding dramatically with an event that Aira certainly did not experience. Indeed, there's considerable ambiguity about the narrator: when others refer to him it is as: "a boy by the name of César Aira", while the first-person narrator consistently describes herself as a girl: "I was a perfectly innocent six-year old girl". If it's a case of sexual-identity confusion, it's been so sublimated by the narrator that s/he isn't even aware of the issue (and no one else seems to be either).
       So, this isn't the straightforward story the title suggests, but rather something entirely different -- and part of the fun is, surprisingly enough, that it's far from clear what exactly it is. The narrator describes a year of childhood -- beginning school, friends (and the lack thereof), family life -- though most of it is, as with many children of that age, a very interior life, imagination trumping experience. Nevertheless it is experience that makes for the defining events of that year -- in particular the narrator's first (and last) tastes of ice cream.
       Yes, How I became a Nun begins and ends with strawberry ice cream, the opening scene being of a father introducing his son to ice cream. They've just moved to the big(ger) city, which actually has ice cream vendors, and Dad buys César a cone of strawberry ice cream. But far from the expected delight the devoted daughter thinks it tastes awful. To say that Dad doesn't handle the situation well is an understatement; for one, he doesn't immediately have a taste for himself, to see whether or not the kid might have a point (s/he does). Things get out of hand, and Dad winds up sentenced to eight years in jail, while the narrator spends quite a bit of time in hospital, first in a vividly described delirium, and then just convalescing.
       The hospital stay also means the narrator starts school three months late -- and finds herself out of place since in the meantime all the other students have learned how to read and s/he hasn't. The narrator remains fairly separate from the class (and ignored by the teacher after s/he does learn to write something (definitely the wrong thing)). S/he also has a tendency of going her own way -- causing consternation when s/he sneaks around the prison while visiting Dad, and eventually also getting her into the terrible final situation s/he finds herself in.
       Much of the novel is overtly a work of imagination, of how the small child sees the world around her, and how s/he reimagines (beyond) it. So, for example:
     As I had no dolls, I had to make do with make-believe children. And as I didn't have any already made up, I used real ones, reimagining them as I pleased. They were my classmates, the only children I knew, and they were ideal for my purposes, because I had no idea of their lives outside school.
       The episodes Aira offers are often masterful, evoked with the intensity a young child brings to fantasy. The skewed childhood perspective is also well-handled, from the childish meanness of the girl badgering her mother about where her father is while they're on the bus, knowing the mother is too embarrassed to tell the truth in front of the eagerly listening other passengers, to her friend, the always well-costumed Arturito, and to such details as the comforting repetitiveness of the radio broadcasts s/he and her mother listen to.
       In a way the novel is about the unsettling strangeness of childhood and being a child. At one moment s/he can claim:
I was becoming almost a normal little girl, in the normal sense of the word (the word "normal" that is).
       And in the next she realises: "But no, that's going too far" Indeed, everything here is about deviation from the norm -- itself, s/he should realise, an impossibility. (Certainly, the ambiguity about the narrator's sexual identity Aira plays with is also a reflection of that: it's not any sort of confusion about actual sexual identity he is concerned with, but rather showing that even absolute opposites can exist concurrently, and that perception can turn what is perceived any way one likes -- arbitrarily as well as on purpose. The narrator is both a binary being a "0" and a "1", depending on the angle one is looking from, but s/he is also all the possibilities in between.)
       The narrative unfolds in somewhat childish style, chronologically but skipping over much detail that would be of interest, focussing only on a few episodes that are spun out at greater length. This doesn't always work ideally, making the story occasionally feel clunkily episodic. Still, it's ultimately an appealing novella, both a realistic evocation of childhood and childishness, as well as a a more mature work of charming strangeness.

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How I became a Nun: Reviews: César Aira: Other books by César Aira under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Argentinian author César Aira was born in 1949.

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