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Optic Nerve by María Gainza
★★★★✰ 3.5 stars

“I am a woman hovering at the midpoint of life, but I still haven’t lost my touch completely: it is within my power, for instance, to flit from the Schiavoni painting in the National Museum of Fine Arts to the Miguel Carlos Victorica they hold in the Sívori Gallery. In other words, to make the shift from childhood to old age in an instant. ”

A series of interesting vignettes that juxtapose the lives of famed and lesser-known artists to the experiences of the people in our narrator’s orbit.
This novel is an ode and a critique of art. There isn’t a cohesive storyline nor a plot, bur rather it is an examination and a mediation on the people who create art. These artists use different mediums to different effects yet they all seem to similarly alienated (a fact that our narrator is quick to point out). I enjoyed learning about their lives, Gainza related their histories in a compelling voice, even when I didn’t agree with the narrator’s pronunciations on their work (she is dismissive of Monet). Often the narrator looked back on a symbolic moment or aspect of their lives to better understand their work.
The unnamed narrator is an Argentinian woman who remains an ambiguous and multivalent presence throughout the course of the narrative as she links art and artists to the experiences of her friends and acquaintances. Art becomes the lens through which she can make sense of her own life and those of her friends. For instance after our narrator views a painting by Alfred De Dreux (depicting a dying deer) she then recounts the unfortunate death of an old college friend. There was always something that connected these personal anecdotes to the artists that our narrator critiqued.
There is loneliness, beauty, anxiety, dissatisfaction, and a general sense of estrangement (from one’s self, from the world).

“There’s nothing more subterraneously oppressive than a family legend. My father was a talented sculptor, but became an architect; he used to say that in life we do what’s required of us, not what we want. But I saw what this did to him over time, how his frustration grew. It wasn’t helped by my mother, whose great aspirations for all of us were equal only to her deep-seated fear that we would fail her.”

The narrator uses quotations of other authors to convey her feelings or impressions, and the novel itself seems to be aware of being a deeply intertextual work.
The style is unapologetically experimental (almost a la Rachel Cusk), and you sort of have to just go with its enigmatic flow. There are some beautiful reflection nestled within this unconventional narrative, and I think this is a must for the lovers of the arts.
During my re-read however I did come across a line that bothered me. This is not the first time I have came across such lazy descriptions. When talking of a Japanese artist she describes his fringe “like an upside-down bowl of rice”…why? Why not just say that he had a bowl-cut ? Why specify that it was a bowl of rice? Because he’s Japanese? For goodness’ sake. This is the kind of stuff I would except from Italian authors.
A short and interesting read, I look forward for more from Gaiza.

Read more reviews on my blog or View all my reviews on Goodreads


An English Literature graduate, currently completing a masters in Comparative Literature. Born in Rome, raised near Venice, currently in the UK. Queer (in both senses of the word).

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