A short review of a short book. César Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2000, tr. 2006 by Chris Andrews) is a beermat of a book. At 87 small pages, it’s less a novel than a novella, less a novella than a story. I read praise of it by Mark Thwaite on ReadySteadyBook, which was recommendation enough for me.
This is a strange little book which knits known facts about the life of German artist Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802 – 1858) into a spellbinding fiction. But it doesn’t start there: Rugendas was the latest in an artistic line.
It was Johann Moritz’s great-grandfather, Georg Philip Rugendas (1666-1742) who founded the dynasty of painters. And he did so as a result of losing his right hand as a young man. The mutilation rendered him unfit for the family trade of clock-making, in which he had been trained since childhood. He had to learn to use his left hand, and to manipulate pencil and brush. He specialized in the depiction of battles, with excellent results, due to the preternatural precision of his draughtsmanship, which was due in turn to his training as a clockmaker and the use of his left hand, which, not being his spontaneous choice, obliged him to work with methodical deliberation. An exquisite contrast between the petrified intricacy of the form and the violent turmoil of the subject matter made him unique.
Like his great-grandfather, Rugendas was “a genre painter”, inspired by Alexander von Humboldt, “an all-embracing scholar, perhaps the last of his kind: his aim was to apprehend the world in its totality; and the way to do this, he believed, in confirmity with a long tradition, was through vision.” Rugendas believes that for him true vision – “the other side of his art” – can be found only in Argentina, with “the mysterious emptiness to be found on the endless plains at a point equidistant from the horizons.” For him, “travel and painting were entwined like fibres in a rope.”
It is during his visit to Argentina, where Rugendas travels with his friend Krause to paint thousands of scenes of the landscape, that the episode occurs with which this story concerns itself. Rugendas finds himself drawn to certain impulses, “like a satellite in thrall to a dangerous star”, and he suffers setbacks which leave him “fragile, as if perched on stilts, his hands and feet very far away.” If it seems as though I am being unnecessarily circumspect in detailing anything about the story, that is because I believe the best way to enjoy An Episode is to approach it ignorant of its content, as I did.
But how, then, to express why it is worth reading? Because it is unique and unfathomable and, I believe, brilliant. Because it is a short sharp report which also slips down beautifully. Because it exhibits a refreshing directness that I only seem to see in fiction in translation. Aira revels in both unashamed storytelling delight – there is rampant violence and what can only be described as a cracking pace – and intellectual engagement: Aira is concerned with the interconnectedness of art with science, history and life. The book is unself-conscious but highly self-aware.
Aira writes of how Rugendas, in painting Indian raids, brings about “a progression towards unmediated knowledge.”
This is something that happens in everyday life, after all. When we strike up a conversation, we are often trying to work out what our interlocutor is thinking. … What could be more closed off and mediated than someone else’s mental activity? And yet this activity is expressed in language, words resounding in the air, simply waiting to be heard. We come up against the words, and before we know it, we are already emerging on the other side, grappling with the thought of another mind.
“The same thing happens with a painter and the visible world. It was happening to Rugendas. What the world was saying was the world.” And this is why it does not matter to me that I cannot quite quantify this book’s appeal, or reduce its essence into other words. All I need to do is recommend it, and look forward to reading it again, and more of Aira’s work too. What the book is saying is the book.