Friday, October 24, 2008

An episode in the life of a Landscape Painter

Cesar Aira's An episode in the life of a landscape painter is a short novella and written in a maverick and distinctive tone, in a way that leaves it open and shut, for in the end, the ending is too open, open to further interpretations or occasionally lack of and the reader, much like the landscape of this novel, is held in the grasp of the indecipherable moment, the real moment of reckoning, of illumination.

Based loosely on the historical events of the German landscape painter Johann Moritz Rugendas and his companion Krause, it focuses on one important event in Rugendas' life, when in the Argentinian pampas painting landscapes, he is struck multiple times by lightning. This leaves Rugendas physically incapacitated, prone to sudden and crippling headaches. the ensuing effects also leave him scarred facially for life, a turn of events that make him occasionally wear a mantle to prevent people from noticing his deformity. The end point is reached when Rugendas, against the better judgement of his friend Krause, spends all his energies in painting an Indian attack on a white settlement. The resulting escapades are physically tiresome and much revealing, leaving both friends in amazement and occasional wonder.

This novella lays out a certain claim on historiography with Rugendas aiming to establish a factual history of what he sees and subsequently paints. He attempts to explore what Rugendas' mentor Humboldt calls the physiognomy of painting and in this process, to allow the facts he paints to tell a distinctive story, based on the unbiased testimony of the witnessed movements of time. This work thus aims to tell us about the representative aspects of history and the subsequent motives, rather than just pure representation. In style, Aira has his own calling and to the simplistic style of his prose he adds a much more stylistically simple touch, a bit of old world writing charm and a hint of magic.

Rugendas has more ambition than health and more guts than any other person in his position. In waiting for that culminating moment of his life, a point that he has suffered in his mind, Rugendas shows an artistic yearning for annihilation. Since the end is too open, the ultimate test is inconclusive. But the effort is all there. In his short preface to this novel, Roberto Bolano calls Aira as "a writer who defies classification, one who is a nun or novice among the discalced Carmelites of the word. Aira is an eccentric writer but also one among the best".

Aira is a prolific novelist and his How I became a nun is available in English too. A good introduction at complete review. All in all, a very satisfying read after the witnessed words of India.

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