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


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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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