César Aira: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter

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.


  1. I picked this book up when I was in Foyle’s last month, but opted not to buy it. Aira’s books certainly sound interesting and I may just snap up a copy of one to sample it.

    The signs must be pointing me toward him, for your post coincides today with Three Percent’s review of another of his books, Ghosts.

  2. I’m quite intrigued by every little thing about this book. The subject matter, the artist, the author, the setting, the cover, the title, even the preface. Thanks for the wonderful review. This is going on top of my wishlist.

  3. Sweet review, John, and sized appropriately. Love the book — one of the best descriptions of time slowing (somewhere in the beginning, I think), when the carts take off to cross the pampas. Also: I’ve had a couple frigthul dreams with creepy Rugendas showing up, muddled face and all. Check out ‘How I Became a Nun’ next, a trippy little book about a little boy-girl and poisoned ice cream. I still need to read Ghosts.

  4. How great to see some latin american authors showing up in your blog! Aira is so funny, I didn’t know that nouvelle was translated. You know, Rugendas also painted several characters (like the ‘huaso’, the chilean ‘gaucho’; ‘gaucho’, the Argentinian ‘Cowboy’) of the chilean landscape. Aira is very productive, though his narratives tend to be quite brief; really one of the best argentinian writers now (along with Sergio Chejfec and Ricardo Piglia). But if you can, please check out Manuel Puig, I believe you will like it. Thanks for your transatlantic post!

  5. John you are right. I have begun the Falluda and it is a page turner. It has won out over the other five books I just started and will be finished in no time. Thanks.

  6. Thanks for the comments everyone. Let me mention that this post has become not only much more popular than I expected for a (frankly) unheard-of writer, but has become the fastest growing post ever on my blog. This seems largely down to Indian actor and TV presenter Shahrukh Khan, who on Twitter mentioned that he enjoys Aira’s books, and then linked to this review. Clearly a man of much-followed tweets, so thank you Shahrukh Khan!

    Claire, your sentiments sum up mine exactly. Sometimes you just get a good feeling about a book, and this was one. Often that good feeling does not stand up, but here, for me, it did. I hope you enjoy it if you read it.

    Thanks for the advice, nicknick and nico. Manuel Puig is actually relatively well known in the UK: Kiss of the Spider Woman and something with Rita Hayworth in the title spring to mind among his work. Probably something to do with the film made of the former.

  7. “Betrayed by Rita Hayworth”. And yes, the movie with William Hurt and Sonia Braga is based on that novel, but i recommend ‘Painted lips’, i think that’s the translation (“Boquitas pintadas”).

  8. Got my review of Ghosts up, John. I found his style, the he writes in one direction and you’re not sure if even he knows where it’s going, very engaging, especially since despite that it all works together as a whole. Looking forward to reading An Episode . . ..

  9. Bonjour!
    Talking about Manuel Puig : maybe the blogg http://www.manuelpuig.blogspot.com will interest you!
    I posted some interviews he made during 1968 and 1992. He was a complete GENIUS!
    All these articles are part of the first multimedia-biography on CD-ROM about Puig: „Manuel Puig: Una aproximación biográfica”. Buenos Aires 2008. ISBN 978-987-05-4332-9

    More information and distribution via : http://www.manuelpuig.com

    lots of saludos

  10. Thanks Gerd – it does interest me (other than being in a language I don’t understand). I picked up a copy of Kiss of the Spider Woman last week, which has been handsomely rejacketed in the UK. Thanks for the links.

  11. Got my review of this Aira up today, John. What a fantastic piece! I’ve also finished How I Became a Nun and could use some help interpreting it. You planning on reading more Aira anytime soon?

  12. No Trevor, I’m not, as I don’t have any more Aira on my shelves and I am trying not to acquire any more books at the minute – that’s why there have been more older books featured on my blog recently. Just go for it, or nicknick who commented above and praised Nun might be able to help (as might Mark Thwaite at ReadySteadyBook/The Book Depository, who rates it).

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