Thursday, April 23, 2009

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by Cesar Aira

Don't you just love it when a book takes you by surprise?

I picked up An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter for a number of reasons. I'd heard of Aira and was interested to see what his writing was like, the book only has 86 pages, it was the only Aira book available, and it had a preface written by Robert Bolano, which begins: "If there is one contemporary writer who defies classication, it is Cesar Aira" and ends: "Aira is an eccentric, but he is also one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today". So how can one go wrong with that?

Let me give you the blurb from the book:

"An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter" is the story of a moment in the life of the German artist Johan Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858). Greatly admired as a master landscape painter, he was advised by Alexander von Humboldt to travel West from Europe to record the spectacular landscapes of Chile, Argentina, and Mexico. Rugendas did in fact become one of the best of the nineteenth-century European painters to venture into Latin America. However this is not a biography of Rugendas. This work of fiction weaves an almost surreal history around the secret objective behind Rugendas' trips to America: to visit Argentina in order to achieve in art the "physiognomic totality" of von Humboldt's scientific vision of the whole. Rugendas is convinced that only in the mysterious vastness of the immense plains will he find true inspiration. A brief and dramatic visit to Mendosa gives him the chance to fulfill his dream. From there he travels straight out onto the pampas, praying for that impossible moment, which would come only at an immense price--an almost monstrously exorbitant price--that would ultimately challenge his drawing and force him to create a new way of making art. A strange episode that he could not avoid absorbing savagely into his own body interrupts the trip and irreversibly and explosively marks him for life.

Ok, so when I picked up this book, I didn't quite read the blurbl, so I had no idea what I was getting into. And when I read the first few pages, I wondered, what was I thinking? Because it reads like a biography of this Rugendas, the first few pages traced his family's background as painters, from his great-grandfather, who founded this "dynasty of painters" after losing his right hand as a young man, and not being able to continue the family trade of clock-making. But as Rugendas ventures into Argentina, the story began to pick up, and was bolstered by some rather magical landscapes and writing: "'I can still see it in my mind's eye...' ran the stock phrase. But why the mind's eye in particular? They could still feel it on their faces, in their arms, their shoulders, their hair and heels, throughout their nervous sytems."

And I found myself setting aside other things and finishing the book. It was an odd book, definitely, yet rather fascinating, although I can't quite explain why.

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