Portrait of an Unknown Lady by María Gainza

“Strange: It has come to me that one doesn’t write to remember, or to forget, or to find relief, or to cure oneself of some pain. One writes to plumb one’s own depths, to understand what’s inside.”

Having found Optic Nerve to be a puzzling yet thoroughly compelling book I was very much eager to sink my teeth into Portrait of an Unknown Lady. Whereas Optic Nerve loosely ties together the unnamed narrator’s meditations on history and art, in Portrait of an Unknown Lady Gainza contains the narrator’s reflections and inquiries into these subjects into what appears to be more of a semblance of a plot. This by no means results in a plot-driven narrative, as there is no urgency to the protagonist’s introspections. Her ruminations are given a freewheeling tempo, one that reminded me of lazy summer days from my childhood. In spite of her philosophical speculations, the narrator’s internal meanderings had a buoyancy to them that saved them from coming across as verbose or laboured.
Set in Buenos Aires the narrator of Portrait of an Unknown Lady is an auction house employee who follows her mentor into the more shady recesses of the art world. When her mentor dies our narrator feels lost, lacking purpose, and direction. She eventually finds solace in rejoining the world she’d left behind, as she begins to search for the identity of a forger, best known for their Mariette Lydis forgeries. In her investigation of this unknown person, the narrator finds herself considering just what a forgery is and whether there is a thing as ‘authenticity’. The first quarter of this slim volume was certainly engrossing as I found the narrator’s recollections of her early days on her job and her relationship with her mentor interesting indeed. As the book progresses however I found myself bored at times. The narrative at times seemed to stray away from its original plot so I found myself forgetting that there was a plot in the first place. I would have probably preferred a more experimental and unconfined narrative, In Optic Nerve, for example, each chapter was very much self-contained, whereas here we have this overarching storyline that never comes to the fore. Still, I always love reading about art, and Gainza demonstrates a vast knowledge of this subject. I liked reading her impressions of certain artists or art movements and the insight she gives into the more administrative aspects of the art world. Gainza is as adroit and insightful as ever but overall Portrait of an Unknown Lady left me wanting more. The snapshot-like stories that make-up Optic Nerve stayed with me longer, as they captured in vivid detail the life of an artist and a moment from the narrator’s own life. The parallelism between her experiences and those of the people she discusses gave the narrative further dimension. Here instead we lack that very specific comparative element, and even if identity, loneliness, and authenticity are central themes, both to the protagonist and her subject, well, it resulted in a far looser comparison.
Still, I can see myself returning to this book as a re-read may result in a newfound appreciation for its story. If you are a fan of Gainza or authors such as Rachel Cusk or Jessica Au, I recommend you check out this one for yourself.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin

Like most collections of short stories Mouthful of Birds has some stories that are hits and ones that are misses. I think the collection definitely showcases Samanta Schweblin’s creativity and versatility. While most of the stories are permeated by the surreal they differ in tone and subject.

Schweblin makes the familiar feel unfamiliar. Many of the stories examine recognisable scenarios from an unexpected angle and it often takes a little time to catch up to what is going on.
One of my favourite stories, ‘Toward Happy Civilisation’, had some very strong Kafkaesque vibes and the creepy yet bizarre atmosphere I would except in a story by Shirley Jackson. Another favourite of mine was ‘The Merman’, an unapologetically offbeat tale involving, you guessed it, a merman and that reminded me of Kevin Wilson.

As much as I appreciated Schweblin’s dark humour and the weirdness of her stories, there were a few unmemorable ones. The title story was a bit of a letdown (I didn’t find it all that ‘shocking’ or subversive) and the really short ones were rather, if not completely, forgettable. I also did not care for that story that relied on animal cruelty. Not only did I not find it to be ‘horrific’ but it just came across as gratuitous and voyeuristic (gore and violence are cheap ways to ‘inspire’ fear).
Nevertheless I would probably pick up more of Schweblin work as this collection did show some promise.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez

Well…that was disappointing. Given the hype around this collection and the comparisons to Shirley Jackson, I was prepared to read some truly unsettling tales. However, as with a lot of other contemporary authors of horror, Mariana Enríquez relies on body horror, gore, and animal violence to instil feelings of unease in her readers…and while her stories are certainly macabre, I wouldn’t call them gothic. The horror too was too splatter for me. Writing about bodily fluids, decomposing or mutilated bodies, doesn’t necessarily make your story scary. While reading these rather samey stories I merely felt a knee-jerk repulsion. Most stories are narrated by morbid and unsatisfied young women who are experience, or have experienced, something truly horrific: they loose childhood friends to haunted houses, they start seeing disturbing things such as chained “deformed” children, or they loose themselves in violent fantasies. They had more or less the same grunge-esque personality and or were aspiring to become part of their country’s counter-culture. I found their voices to be monotonous and, given all their attempts at subversiveness, surprisingly banal.

What frustrated me the most was the fact that not one of the story had a decent ending. I’m all for open endings, and I think that short stories suit ambiguous endings…but here the stories never reached their apex. Each story would have these ominous first few lines, foreshadowing the horrors to come…but then the stories seemed to cut off just when things start to get vaguely intriguing or disturbing.

Lastly, a lot of the stories relied on the appearance of “deformed” children or adults in order to unnerve its main characters…are we in the 1980s? Call me snowflake or whatever but I found the author’s obsession with deformed bodies to be rather outdated.

MY RATING: 2 out of 5 stars

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OPTIC NERVE : BOOK REVIEW

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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.

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