How I Became a Nun
The Role of the Post-Modern Narrator: Challenging the Truth of Constructions in The Hour of the Star and How I Became a Nun
Unlike the author, whose job it is to write the story, the role of the narrator is to tell the story. The narrator provides the window through which the reader looks, framing the discourse, and deciding what is, and what is not, important, where to focus, and, what to ignore. The narrator can set the tone of the narrative by word choice and perhaps even influence the way in which the narrative will be interpreted by the reader.T here are many ways in which the narrator can tell the story. In the case of a third person omniscient narrator, he can give the reader insight into the minds, thoughts, feelings, and motivations, of any, or all, of the characters. He can also give the reader information about the character’s pasts, and, explain the importance of certain events giving a wider picture and deeper understanding of the narrative. In contrast, a narrator can also be written in the first person and only reveal what the main character thinks, feels, and experiences.
The two novels, The Hour of the Star, by Clarice Lispector, and, How I Became a Nun, by Cesar Aira, are both written in a post-modern narrative style that mimics the autobiographical mode of storytelling. The narrator, in both of these novels, however, rather than telling a “true” story, tells a story that is full of inconsistencies and draws attention to itself as outright fantasy or, at best, heavily biased. By constantly reminding the reader that the storyteller is unreliable, literally calling him a liar, and having him give conflicting information, the author casts doubt on the narrator and encourages the reader to see him as being neither capable of being a source of truth, nor, competent of correctly interpreting the facts. Another way the author has the narrator undermine his own authority is by constantly calling attention to process of storytelling, reading, and, writing, as constructions. The narrator in the post- modern novel becomes one of the cast of characters and highlights the way in which cultural constructions promote themselves as truth rather than as fiction. Serving as a biased and unreliable voice, the narrator is able to undermine the reader’s faith in the ability of artistic constructions to represent universal truths. He points out that the very processes of reading and writing are constructions, with shared cultural meanings, rather than universal systems of representations. By highlighting the very process of how a story, or information, is filtered through the biased observer, re-constructed, and transmitted to others, using the medium of language, the authors of these two novels cast shadows on the very foundation of knowledge itself. This brings into question the nature of truth and raises epistemological doubts. Are there universals truths or is everything a cultural construction? And how can one know that something is true when observation and communication are not reliable sources of information?
Both of the novels, The Hour of the Star, and, How I Became a Nun, are written in as if they were autobiographies, representing a real person’s thoughts and feelings, as if to mimic reality. In the first novel, The Hour of the Star, the narrator, Rodrigo S.M., is cast as the writer of Macabea’s story. Over the course of the novel he constantly interrupts the narrative to self-consciously explain himself, and the process of writing, directly to the reader. He swings wildly from one end of the confidence spectrum to the other. At times having total belief in himself as a God-like omniscient creator of another human being. He states, ironically, that “this narrative will deal with something delicate: the creation of a whole person who surely is alive as I am”(11), and he insists that “there is no doubt she’s a physical person” (14). This, of course, is ironic because, just as his characters are not “alive”, he also is a character being written by an author, and so is a representation, not an actual living person. He even goes so far as to contradict himself as her all-knowing creator and says “I did not invent this girl. She forced her being upon me” transforming his creation from a two- dimensional character into a being with free-will (21). From this position of total self-confidence as a creator he often falls into deep self-doubt about his abilities saying not only that has he “no idea how this thing will turn out”, but that he is even ignorant of his own self. He asks the reader to forgive him, explaining that he is “going to keep talking about me who am unknown to myself (7). Rodrigo also literally calls himself a liar, saying “I only lie precisely when it’s time to lie…but I don’t lie when I write” (10). This can be seen as an ironic contradiction in terms because all fiction is a form of lying. He also admits to making mistakes in his judgement of his characters personalities and not knowing the details of their lives. He contradicts himself and changes his mind about his characters saying “will they get married? I still don’t know, I just know that they were somehow innocent and cast little shadow upon the ground. No, I lied, now I see it all: he wasn’t innocent in the least… He had, I just discovered, inside of him the hard seed of evil” (38-39). Rodrigo states that he is “astonished to know the truth so well” considering that this story “never happened to me or anyone I know” (48). By the end of the narrative he admits to his reader that “dealing with facts is such a bore, daily matters wipe [him] out and [he doesn’t] feel like writing this story”(63), but he cannot “rewind the last few minutes…because [he has] already gone too far and can’t turn back now” (70).
Similarly, the narrator of the novel, How I Became a Nun, is unreliable. Not only does he admit to being a liar, and, not being able to tell fact from fantasy, but the narrator also gives conflicting information which casts doubts on whether or not any of the story is a real account of his past. The first clue that there is something askew is the discrepancy between whether Cesar is a boy or a girl. Throughout the narrative all the characters refer to Cesar as a boy but internally he refers to himself as a “devoted daughter” (4) and a “difficult girl” (30) who lives long enough to “take the veil” (3). There is a strong emphasis on the difference between how things appear outwardly to others and the inward processes of Cesar. This is echoed in the ironic confrontation between Cesar and his father; when Cesar insists that his personal experience is that the ice cream tastes bad, and his father’s outrage and insistence that, even without tasting it, the ice cream is perfectly fine; not only because this is his experience with ice cream but also because he wishes to believe it. Cesar’s father does not trust the information his son is giving him, probably given that Cesar admits to being “hypersensitive”(5), “fussy about food, and [also had] mastered the art of feigning disgust when [he] didn’t feel like eating”(4). The humor of his father’s exaggerated frustration as a parent turns to horror with the revelation that Cesar was telling the truth, and there is an accompanying shift in authority from the father to the ambiguous son/daughter.
This shift, which leads the reader to believe that Cesar is the voice of a trustworthy narrator, does not last long. Cesar confesses that after spending a month in the hospital recovering from cyanide poisoning “something had broken inside… a value, the little safety device that used to allow [him] to switch levels”.Perhaps the “levels” being the ability to switch back and forth between fact and fiction, and, tell the difference between the two.While Cesar is being cared for in the hospital he also admits to spending much of his time lying to his doctor, “an urge, a whim or a manic obsession that not even [he]could explain impelled [him] to sabotage the doctor’s work, to trick him…[he] said the opposite of the truth…[and] considered it [his] duty to lie every time” (34-5). He says “fiction and reality were fused…simulation was becoming real” (37). Further on in the story his memory also becomes unreliable.He struggles to remember his best friend clearly, saying, “his name was Farias…or was it Quiroga…I’m getting the names mixed up…or maybe there were two of them (53).The narrative supposedly takes place over a twelve- month time span and he assures the reader that “everything in this story I am telling is guaranteed by my perfect memory” (71). However, according to Cesar, his memory also “merges with the radio” (72). For Cesar’s mother the radio “was company” (72) and “reassembled her identity as woman and housewife”(73), but for Cesar, he “achieved a complete identification with the voices in the ether…fastened onto the illusion like a vampire [and] lived on the blood of a fantasy paradise” (73). The radio is not only “a kind of reality” (74) for Cesar but is seen by society as the voice of truth with its historically accurate re-enactments, news, quizzes, and music. In the same way that Cesar cannot remember his best-friend’s name, cannot tell if his friend’s stories are true or not, neither can we, the readers of Cesar’s stories, know if they are fact or fiction. Although he calls his death by strawberry ice cream a “real death”, it comes off as an absurd extended wordplay with the use of the phrase “a strawberry eye scream” in the final scene (115).
In addition to both novels featuring an untrustworthy narrator, they also both make use of metafiction to call attention to the processes of reading, writing, and, the concept of culturally constructed meanings.By self-consciously and systematically drawing attention to the artifice of the novel, metafiction begs the question of the relationship between reality and construction as well as the inability of art to represent life. The Hour of the Star primarily puts the focus on the processes of writing and the authority of the author as the storyteller. Lispector uses explicit metafiction and has her narrator comment on how he will create the story itself in great detail. He says he will write a story ” with a beginning, middle, and ‘grand finale’ followed by silence and falling rain” (5). He explains his word choice to the reader saying that he must “speak simply to capture her delicate and vague existence” (7). Then he lets the reader know that to start the story without more delay he must “start all of a sudden just as I jump all of the sudden into the icy water of the sea, a way of facing with suicidal courage the intense cold” (16). He “jumps in” and suddenly starts the narrative with “she was incompetent. Incompetent for life…” (16). The author ironically reminds the reader that although he is “the person sitting here typing”, he does not want to be “all modern and invent trendy words to make [himself] look original” (11). This flip phrase is a humorous aside to the point that she, the author, is writing about a writer who is writing about the process of writing, and that by ironically referencing the creation of the narrative, and the narrator, she is using the “modern” style of postmodernism. She again uses layers of irony and artifice when the narrator states that he does not intend to be complex and that he determines with “false free will” to have “seven characters and [he] obviously [is] one of the more important (4-5). The narrator referring to himself as an important character reminds the reader that the voice of the narrator is a piece of fiction under the pretense of being a fact. Lispector makes sure to drive home that this novel, and everyone in it, is a construction, by having her very unreliable narrator insist that “of course the story is true though invented” and again drawing awareness to the irony that something which is invented, or is a constructed representation, cannot also be true, or be reality (4). Something is either reality or it is a representation of reality.
Rather than focusing on the process of writing, Aira uses the process of reading to demonstrate language as a constructed cultural code.He begins with his protagonist Cesar and the process of him learning how to read. He starts before Cesar has learned to break the code; when he “was present, but not a participant…[because he] couldn’t read” (49). Instead of being able to participate in the shared culture of constructed meaning, all he sees, when he looks at swear words written on the wall of the boy’s bathroom, is “horizontal and vertical sticks in a senseless tangle. Until that moment [he] had thought that the graffiti in the bathroom were drawings, incomprehensible drawings, runes or hieroglyphs” (54). The words are merely drawings and it is we who construct their meanings. The author by referring to the process of deciphering the written language is pointing to the fact that the reader is reading, in this case the novel, and by reading the reader is de-constructing the written language and re-constructing a cultural code of shared meaning. Interestingly Aria speaks directly to his audience calling them “my readers” which calls attention not only to the book itself, and the fact that it has been published, and is being read, but it also, casts doubt on the narrative as being a representation of reality (79).How can the author have published this story if he died at the age of six, or seven, in a vat of ice cream?
The voice of the narrator in both of these novels is primarily to be the voice of the post-modern concept of being critical of authorities and hegemonic stories. The post-modern narrator, with his fallible memory and his biases, represents the reader himself and reflects back the reader’s own inability to truly know what is, and is not, fact, or fiction.By being critical of fiction which represents itself as fact, such as these two novels which were written with an autobiographical style, the reader is gently pushed in the direction of being able to deconstruct the artifice of the story. This ability to see beyond the surface of the construction the reader can start to view all stories as artifice regardless of how they represent themselves.
Aira, Cesar. How I Became a Nun Translated by Chris Andrews 2007, Originally published by Beatriz Viterbo Editora, Argentina, as Como me hice monja, in 1993, Published by New Directions Publishing Corporation, New York NY
Lispector, Clarice. The Hour of the Star translated by Ben Moser, originally published as A hora da estrela by arrangement with the Heirs of Clarice Lispector and Agencia Literaria Carment Balcells, Barcelona. Translated from the Portuguese A Hora de Estrela. Published by New Directions Paperbook New York NY