How I Became a Nun
César Aira, translated by Chris Andrews
New Directions, $13.95 (paper)

Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrews
New Directions, $21.95 (cloth)

“If there is one contemporary writer who defies classification, it is César Aira,” wrote the late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño. “Aira is an eccentric, but he is also one of today’s three or four best writers in the Spanish language.” High praise indeed from a writer who himself was called “the most influential and admired novelist of his generation in the Spanish-speaking world” by Susan Sontag.

Both Bolaño and Aira, who is Argentinean, belong to a diverse generation of Spanish-language writers—including Enrique Vila-Matas (Spain), Javier Marías (Spain), Carmen Boullosa (Mexico), Fabio Morabito (Egypt/Mexico), Juan Villoro (Mexico), Horacio Castellanos Moya (Salvador), and Rodrigo Rey Rosa (Guatemala)—who have slowly been introduced to an English audience. (We can hope that Mexico’s Daniel Sada, an extraordinary writer—inventive, risky, lyrical, political—will also soon leap the language barrier.) These writers do not share a style or a common vision about what Hispanic-American writing should or should not be. Few of the works of this new generation can be said to belong to a singular tradition or a particular school or movement; each of them converses with a different canon.

Of the group, Aira and Bolaño have received particular acclaim, and in 2007, thanks to Barbara Epler, the editor in chief of New Directions, both Aira’s stunning novella How I Became a Nun and one of Bolaño’s most moving books, Amulet, appeared in English translation.

César Aira published his first novel, Moreira, in 1975. Today, he is the author of 40 novels. He is also a playwright, translator, essayist, and university professor in Buenos Aires, where he lives and writes at least two novels a year.

Aira first became visible outside Argentina in 1998, when Random House Mondadori published How I Became a Nun. It was an instant popular and critical sensation. BabeliaEl País’s literary supplement—celebrated the novel as one of the ten most important books published in Spain that year. The same year, Aira made his debut in English with The Hare, a novel about a 19th-century English naturalist roaming the Argentinean pampa in search of a rare hare, a subtle pretext to meditate on the complex relation between the colonialist’s greedy curiosity and the native’s resourceful response. Aira’s next novel published in English, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, appeared in 2006. The painter is a historical character, Johan Mortiz Rugendas, a German who journeyed through Brazil in the 19th century, primarily painting but also recording ethnographic information. Both novels explore the topic of the “other” with an earnest playfulness that is at the core of Aira’s style.

Slim, cerebral, witty, fanciful, and idiosyncratic, Aira’s novels draw strength and meaning from many traditions, including Eastern and Central European existentialism: from the Polish Witold Gombrowicz, the French Raymond Russell, the Russian Mikhail Bulgakov, the Czech Bohumil Hrabal, and even the Austrian Thomas Bernhard—without the anti-nationalist anger.

They are also in dialogue with the Argentinean tradition—not only with Jorge Luis Borges but with the less known Osvaldo Lamborghini, Aira’s friend and—perhaps—literary mentor. In the mid-1970s, Lamborghini served on the board of the short-lived Buenos Aires–based magazine Literal, which advocated an “anti-mimetic” literature, strongly influenced by the ideas of Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan. “Anti-mimetic” or “non-referential” literature rebels against the idea of art as imitation, calling nature itself a fabrication of the mind, a literary or philosophical convention invented by the Romantic poets. Although this avant-garde movement generated an alternative canon to 19th-century realism at the beginning of the 20th century in Europe and Latin America, by the 1950s and 1960s, it had been widely incorporated into the mainstream and had begun to take different forms that conjured against any form of realism. Some of these forms, such as the antinovel, perhaps took themselves too seriously. Aira’s writing, inspired by Literal’s understanding of the avant-garde, is closer to the youthful, subversive spirit of the Dadaist joke than to the cryptic earnestness of, for example, Alain Robbe-Grillet. Even with all their formalistic playfulness with form, Aira’s novels still rest, however loosely, on plot and character.

Brilliantly translated by the Australian Chris Andrews (also Bolaño’s translator), How I Became a Nun is narrated by a six-year-old Argentinean girl. Her family moves from her native, rural Pringles to the more urban Rosario, where her father decides to take her for her first taste of ice cream. As the little girl relates the the experience, we learn that we are not in the hands of an ordinary child narrator but inside a very peculiar mind: “I remembered him [Father] saying as we walked to the store, among other remarks infused with pleasant anticipation, ‘We’ll find out if you like ice cream.’ Naturally he said this assuming that I would. Don’t all children? Some adults even remember their childhood as little more than a perpetual begging for ice cream. Which is why there was a tone of incredulous fatalism to his question, as if to say: ‘I don’t believe it: even in a simple thing like this you’re going to let me down.’” Which, of course, she does. Aira’s novels seem to proceed by sabotaging their own premises. After the little girl has her first taste of strawberry ice cream, she is seized by convulsions. In a rage, her father kills the ice-cream vendor. End of second chapter.

In the beginning of the third chapter, we learn that the ice cream was tinged with cyanide (this is based on a true episode of food poisonings in 1950s Latin America) and the little girl finds herself the lucky survivor of an unfortunate accident, which is not the fate of her father, who is sent to jail for murder. More importantly, we also learn that the little girl is a boy, named César (yes, like the author). That is to say, she is a female conscience trapped in a boy’s body. Talk about unreliable narrators. Reliability and realism, however, are not exactly what Aira has in mind—a point missed by a recent reviewer who found the little girl’s voice unconvincing and too consciously imposed by the author. “I never liked making the brutes talk like brutes,” Aira said in an interview. “In the end, everything is a literary convention.”

Aira’s opening ice-cream scene can be read as a perverse take on the opening sentence of García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Or an even more perverse twist on Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. The narrator dips his “plump little cake” in a cup of tea and finds the taste magical. After two spoonfuls, however, the pastry loses its magic, and the narrator concludes, “It is plain that the truth I am seeking lies not in the cup but in myself.” Aira seems to have reversed this conclusion: the truth the little girl is looking for—why she hates ice cream—lies in the cyanide-infected scoop of ice cream itself.

After César’s father is incarcerated, things only go worse for little César and his poor mother, who falls pray to her “daughter’s” dangerous reveries, which often result in public disasters and humiliations one can only (loudly) laugh at. In one of the funniest moments in the novel, César, after a month of convalescing, pays her father a visit in jail:

In that excessively realist building, I was radiating magic . . . . But my magic started acting on me: a melancholy fantasy suddenly transported my soul to a region far, far away. Why didn’t I have any dolls? Why was I the only girl in the world who didn’t have a single doll? My dad was in prison . . . and I didn’t have a doll to keep me company. I had never had one, and I didn’t know why. It wasn’t because my parents were poor or stingy (when did that ever stop a child?). There was some other mysterious reason.

The not-so-mysterious reason will forever elude this deluded child. And the nonsense about not having a doll takes place as little César finds herself separated from his mother, lost in a remote section of the prison, until she hears her name over the prison’s loudspeakers: “el niño César Aira, el niño César Aira.”

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.

Roberto Bolaño’s Amulet is a tour de force. Published in 1999, a year after Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives—a detective story that crosses three continents—won the prestigious Herralde Prize, Amulet brings back to life Auxilio Lacouture, a secondary character in the earlier novel.

In Amulet Auxilio is the self-claimed “mother of Latin American poetry,” an Uruguayan woman who arrives in Mexico City in the 1960s and experiences the 1968 military occupation of the National Autonomous Mexican University (UNAM), which crushed the student movement. Poor and thirsty for poetry—two traits common to many of Bolañ’s characters, and two traits that, for a significant part of his life, described Bolaño himself—Auxilio gravitates around two satellites: the austere halls of UNAM’s Facultad de Filosofia y Letras (the Philosophy and Letters Department) and the apartment of Pedro Garfias, an exiled Spanish poet. At the Facultad, Lacouture, helped by kind professors and secretaries, performs a series of odd jobs. The jobs and the relationships they illuminate become a magnificent portrayal of a community that bridged the gap between Spain and Latin America and breached the frontiers within Latin America itself—a golden era for Mexico City’s poets and writers and actors, and Uruguayan and Chilean and Spanish exiles.

In the mid-’60s a small group of Mexican writers founded a countercultural tradition called “literatura de la onda.” Onda, whose literal translation is “wave,” came to mean “frequency.” Onda meant to be “in frequency,” or to be “in.” José Agustín, Gustavo Sainz, Parménides García Saldaña, were among its members, and they advocated an urban literature that captured the experience of city life. Bolaño was influenced by them but captured far more deeply than the others the experience of Mexican university life—particularly at UNAM.

Founded as the Real y Pontificia Universidad de México in the 16th century, it was renamed the Mexican National Autonomous University in 1910, within the nationalist context of the Mexican Revolution. “Autonomous” means that the university—with its own city, Ciudad Universitaria, which is larger than the Vatican—is separate from the state. Neither the police nor the military can enter its premises without the university’s consent. The university provides its own security force, Auxilio UNAM, from which Bolaño took his protagonist’s name. (Auxilio is the Spanish word for “help.”) Surrounded by the working-class neighborhood Copilco, the university houses a building painted by the muralist Siqueiros with the title “El pueblo a la Universidad y la Universidad al pueblo” (The people to the university, and the university to the people). Tuition is voluntary. Juan Rulfo taught there, as did José Emilio Pacheco. Today it is one of the most important institutions in the country, and indeed the whole of Latin America. To any student who is lucky enough to pass its admissions test, UNAM becomes his second home. And, as any UNAM student would tell you, the umbilical cord is long enough to follow you anywhere you go.

Although Bolaño never officially enrolled in the university, like his Auxilio, he roamed its brown and white hallways peopled by young, passionate students coming from widely diverse and sometimes clashing backgrounds. Bolaño was the perfect receptacle for the energy of the university, and of Mexico City. Amulet is a sort of homage to that energy, to the energy of those happy but almost tragic professors and students who give their lives to unprofitable professions such as teaching and poetry:

Sometimes, not often, I found paid work; a professor would pay me out of his salary to be a kind of personal assistant, or the department heads or the faculty would put me on a contract for two weeks, a month, or sometimes month and a half, with vague, ambiguous and mostly non-existent duties, or the secretaries—who were so nice, I made friends with them all; they confided in me, told me about their heartaches and their hopes—made sure that their bosses kept finding me odd jobs so that I could earn a few pesos. That was during the day. At night I led what you might call a bohemian life with the poets of Mexico City, which I found deeply rewarding and convenient too, since money was scarce at the time and I didn’t always have enough to pay for lodgings. But most of the time I did. I shouldn’t exaggerate. I had enough money to get by and the poets educated me in Mexican literature by lending me books, their own books of poems for a start (you know what poets are like), the essentials and the classics, so my expenses were minimal . . . I was happy. The Mexican poets were generous and I was happy.

In Amulet Auxilio meets Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s alter ego and one of the antiheroes of The Savage Detectives. With him and his pals, Auxilio roams the streets of Mexico City, getting drunk and angry—and sometimes drunk and sad. She meets Belano’s mother, the surrealist painter Remedios Varo, Belano’s sister, and Lilian Serpa—once Che Guevara’s lover. Auxilio is happy until soldiers occupy Ciudad Universitaria. Fearful, Auxilio ignores the orders to evacuate the building and remains in a bathroom stall, waiting for more than ten days without food. Ironically, the only thing Auxilio cannot do is ask for help. The only thing she has with her is a book by Pedro Garfiass, so she reads and also writes her own verses on toilet paper only to flush it down in a Kafkaesque moment:

The vanity of writing, the vanity of destruction. I thought, Because I wrote, I endured. I thought, Because I destroyed what I had written, they will find me, they will hit me, they will rape me, they will kill me. I thought, The two things are connected, writing and destroying, hiding and being found.

Finally, Auxilio is ready to leave the bathroom, but before she does, Lupita, Professor Fombona’s secretary, finds Auxilio. She returns to her errant life and discovers that her friend Belano has left Mexico City for Europe or Australia or Canada. And with him, we feel, he has taken a little of Mexico City, its university, and the idealism and optimism that characterized the 1960s in Mexico, Latin America, and elsewhere.

After that, the story of Auxilio transmutes into a legend, “borne on the winds of Mexico City, the winds of 1968; it went among the dead and the survivors, and now everyone knows that when the university was occupied in that beautiful, ill-fated year, a woman remained on the campus . . . the woman who had gone without food for thirteen days, shut up in the bathroom.” Sometimes Auxilio herself hears her story being told by students and in legend becomes a medical student or “a man, a Maoist student or a professor with gastrointestinal problems. . . . What does it matter, I would say, that’s just university folklore, another of Mexico City’s urban legends.” But Auxilio’s is no inane urban legend about plastic pets turned into monsters. It is a telling legend about an episode in Mexican history, a tragic one that marked both private and public lives.

Bolaño’s fiction is located at the frontiers that supposedly separate literature from politics. In Amulet he focuses his literary powers on a single episode and a single voice. Placed within the context of Bolaño’s two most important novels—The Savage Detectives and the posthumous 2666—Auxilio’s story of the university’s occupation becomes a metaphor for the political disasters that plagued Latin America in the ’60s and ’70s, and, more poignantly, a symbol of a time in which passionate conviction and generosity seemed still possible, in both literature and life.