Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Maria Gainza critic – Mystery of Bolaño-esque art | fiction

One of my favorite books of recent years was a debut novel by an Argentinian art critic that did not receive enough attention when it was published in translation in 2019. Optic nerve by Maria Gainza is a digressive, virtually plotless tale of a woman examining her life through the paintings that fascinate her. I found it so fresh, so piercingly beautiful, I felt like a door had been kicked open for me, as Bruce Springsteen said when he heard Bob Dylan for the first times.

It was clear that Gainza, like British authors Rachel Cusk and Claire-Louise Bennett, opened up new possibilities for the novel as a place of freedom, where one could mix fiction, memory, art history and anecdote. It immediately felt like a thrilling discovery. I looked forward to reading his follow-up, although aware that doors shouldn’t really need to be opened twice.

Portrait of an unknown lady, translated by Thomas Bunstead, is a seemingly more conventional novel about an upper-class con man in 1960s Argentina. But like Optic nerveit’s a layered narrative told through impressionistic vignettes by a narrator drawn to the sadness and strangeness of others.

From a hotel room overlooking Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, our anonymous narrator, a “quite prestigious” art critic from Argentina, recounts how she was drawn into a world of art forgery. It all started in her mid-twenties, when she was appointed assistant to Enriqueta Macedo, the country’s leading authority on fine art authentication. The narrator becomes utterly devoted to the older woman – who eventually reveals her dirty secret to him. For 40 years, it has issued certificates of authenticity to fake works of art.

Many of these works are by master forger, La Negra (“La Noire”), otherwise known as Renée, a charismatic dark-skinned woman whom Enriqueta met at the Argentine Academy of Fine Arts and who recently disappeared. Returning to the “golden age of art forgery,” the two women collaborated with a group of fellow art graduates and “tired bohemians” in a ramshackle mansion, known as the Hotel Melancólico . They specialized in forging Austrian-Argentinian artist Mariette Lydis, known for her kitsch paintings of “murderous little girls” and “women about to turn into animals or animals not long since humanized”. Enriqueta admits that while she enjoyed cheating on the rich, she wasn’t in it for the money. The thrill came from the idea that Renée’s forgeries were raising the art bar. “Can’t a fake give as much pleasure as an original? she asks. “Isn’t there a point when fakes become more authentic than the originals?” And anyway… isn’t the real scandal the market itself?

After Enriqueta’s death, the narrator finds herself writing the auction catalog for a sudden and suspicious discovery of “Lydis-related” objects – a pearl necklace, a dried birch branch – which collectively tell the story of the story of the painter’s journey from Nazi-occupied Vienna to Argentina. . Gainza’s novel becomes a puzzle as the most unlikely biographical details are questioned. How much was made by the narrator? Does authenticity really matter? And whose life story is she really interested in: artist, forger or authenticator?

The three countercultural rebels – Lydis, Renee and Enriqueta – remain enigmas, with the narrator realizing (much like Cusk) that “the idea of ​​a character, with a clearly defined story, linear psychology and consistent behavior, is the one of the great sophistry of literature”. ”. She adds: “We have little and nothing: only what we are today, in the long run what we did yesterday and, with a bit of luck, what we will do tomorrow.

The narrator’s quest may be futile, but it allows her to pursue an imaginary conversation with her deceased mentor. And in the process, Gainza weaves a compelling, often confusing story about beauty, obsession and authenticity. At one point, she agrees with Oscar Wilde that insincerity isn’t really such a terrible thing. “It is simply a method by which we can multiply our personalities. Perhaps all our sadness can be attributed to living trapped within ourselves. Perhaps it is only the forger who finds a way through this obstacle.

Gainza clearly revels in gypsy life, though tales of their dizzying romantic romp are tempered by a biting, disenchanted narrator that reminds me of Ottessa Moshfegh’s protagonist in My year of rest and relaxation. Gainza’s fiction, however, has more in common with that of Roberto Bolaño, with themes of art and infamy, craftsmanship and theft. Like Bolaño, she writes stories within stories, each with its own melancholic mood and unsolvable mystery.

I confess that I did not find Portrait of an unknown lady as exciting as Optic nerve, not helped by some awkwardness in translation (e.g. “Alfonso suddenly seemed to descend from his hurtling erotic slide”). But it’s still a novel with lots of beautiful, confusing moments. Maria Gainza is sharp, modern and playful, a writer who multiplies the possibilities of fiction.

  • Portrait of an unknown lady by Maria Gainza, translated by Thomas Bunstead, is published by Harvill Secker (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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