Book Review: Portrait of an Unknown Woman, by María Gainza
It is a truly exquisite novel. Before praising it, I should mention that it is part of a resurrection of Harvill Secker’s famous “leopard” colophon books. Much like finding hallmarks on silverware, it’s a design classic that bibliophiles will know. Harvill was founded in 1946 stating that “publishers believe that by producing translations of important books they help to overcome the barriers, which are still high at the present time, to close the exchange of ideas between people divided by borders”. I can’t think of a more timely company. I couldn’t honestly say that I liked all of Harvill’s books, but they never failed to interest me. What I can say without shame is a delight. It’s moving, intelligent, and written with ironic precision. I can’t vouch for the translation, not knowing the original Spanish, but Thomas Bunstead’s English is irregular and frosty, and I can’t believe La Luz Negra lacks those qualities. Although, given that the novel is about imposture, deception, sleight of hand, and misdirection, I could be completely wrong.
Portrait of a Stranger opens with a woman who checks into a hotel in Buenos Aires under a false name, intending to write a book that is part investigation and part confession. After being hired by her uncle in the expertise department of a bank, she is taken under the wing of the cryptic and distant Enriqueta Macedo, a specialist in the authentication of works of art. She eschews modern technology, preferring a very keen taste, an eye for specific details and idiosyncrasies. She is drawn to rather gnomic statements such as “Art…is the cheapest lie detector I know”.
Eventually, our anonymous narrator becomes a confidant. Enriqueta, in addition to giving guarantees on works of art, has a secondary activity in giving false authentications. As a young woman, she had been part of a group of counter-culture figures staying at (their name) the Melancholical Hotel. One of them, Renée, has a great ability to imitate paintings and even the style of painters – not fakes as such, but convincing possibilities. At one point, Enriqueta calls a work “very…perfect” and is greeted with “no flies on you”. So it begins. Enriqueta and his associates and proteges are “romantic, rebels against the bourgeoisie and against this whole way of seeing the world: the way of buying”.
I confess to having a slight penchant for books on art forgery, from William Gaddis’s The Recognitions to Ken Perenyi’s Caveat Emptor to Eric Hebborn’s False Impressions and even John Mortimer’s wonderful story, “Rumpole And The Genuine Article”. Enriqueta sums up the problem succinctly: “Can’t a fake give as much pleasure as an original? Isn’t there a point when fakes become more authentic than the originals? And anyway… isn’t the real scandal the market itself? Or as its co-conspirator puts it, “I sometimes wonder if art fraud wasn’t the greatest work of art of the 20th century.”
Renée’s quest grows increasingly elusive and out of reach. Was she a genius or a hack? Was she a drug addict? Did she slip away to become a horticulturist specializing in cacti? Did she have a pet crocodile? Did she say “the idea of normality puts me off”, or was she a prostitute? Part of the joy of the book lies in this moving and evasive figure. As our guide writes, “I admit that I had come to think that it did not really exist, was rather the product of a group flight, of a collective delirium, the dream of a whole generation – perpetuated in countless stories, passed on like Chinese whispers to succeeding generations, transforming all the way”.
But the book plays a much more complex game. It seemed plausible to wink at writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares, given the interest in aesthetics, the fictional and the transgressive. When we come to the real painters – Mariette Lydis, Pedro Figari – I assumed that they were also fictions. Well no. It was a pleasant morning watching their work, although disturbing at times. Another of the characters, Federico Manuel Vogelius, was surely an invention? No, he did exist (or the conspiracy is much larger than I assumed). The novel enshrines Harvill’s guiding principles. I had a fleeting knowledge of Latin American art (Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Remedios Varo, Lygia Clark) but had never heard of the figures that hover here. I’m doing it now.
The book is not just a puzzle box and a Baedeker, as there is an emotional resonance especially around lives dislocated and compromises made and promises kept. As much as the narrator is haunted, the reader will be haunted. I can’t reveal the end which is not a conclusion, but it is quite remarkable. It’s also funny, especially when we’re given a glimpse behind the curtain of being an art critic. “Nobody was supposed to write about art anymore,” says one editor; but Gainza turned it into a true work of art.
Portrait of an Unknown Woman, by María Gainza, Harvill Secker, £14.99
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