Portrait of an Unknown Lady by Maria Gainza review – Bolaño-esque art mystery | Fiction


One of my favourite books of the past few years was a debut novel by an Argentinian art critic that didn’t get nearly enough attention when it was published in translation in 2019. Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza is a digressive, virtually plotless account of a woman surveying her life through the paintings that enthral her. I found it so fresh, so piercingly beautiful, I felt like I’d had a door kicked open in my mind, as Bruce Springsteen said of hearing Bob Dylan for the first time.

It was clear that Gainza, like British authors Rachel Cusk and Claire-Louise Bennett, was opening up new possibilities for the novel as a place of freedom, where you could blend fiction, memoir, art history and anecdote. She immediately felt like a thrilling discovery. I was eager to read her follow-up, though mindful that doors shouldn’t really need to be kicked open twice.

Portrait of an Unknown Lady, translated by Thomas Bunstead, is a seemingly more conventional novel about a high society con artist in 1960s Argentina. But like Optic Nerve, it’s a layered narrative told through impressionistic vignettes by a narrator who is attracted to the sadness and strangeness of others.

From a hotel room overlooking the Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires, our unnamed narrator, a “fairly prestigious” Argentinian art critic, recalls how she was drawn into a world of art counterfeiting. It all began in her mid-20s, when she was appointed assistant to Enriqueta Macedo, the country’s leading authority in fine art authentication. The narrator becomes utterly devoted to the older woman – who eventually lets her in on her dirty secret. For the past 40 years, she has been giving certificates of authenticity to fake works of art.

Many of these works are by the master forger, La Negra (“The Black One”), otherwise known as Renée, a charismatic, dark-skinned woman whom Enriqueta met at the Argentinian Fine Arts Academy and who has recently vanished. Back in “the golden age of art forgery”, the two women collaborated with a group of fellow art graduates and “tatty bohemians” in a run-down mansion, known as the Hotel Melancólico. They specialised in forging the Austrian-Argentine artist Mariette Lydis, known for her kitsch paintings of “murderous little girls” and “women about to turn into animals or animals not long since made human”. Enriqueta admits that though she enjoyed cheating the rich, she wasn’t in it for the money. The thrill came from the idea that Renée’s fakes were raising the bar for art. “Can a forgery not give as much pleasure as an original?” she asks. “Isn’t there a point when fakes become more authentic than originals? And anyway… isn’t the real scandal the market itself?”

After Enriqueta dies, the narrator finds herself writing the auction catalogue for a suspiciously sudden discovery of “Lydis-related” objects – a pearl necklace, a dried birch branch – which collectively tell the story of the painter’s journey from Nazi-occupied Vienna to Argentina. Gainza’s novel becomes a puzzle as we question the most improbable biographical details. How much has been fabricated by the narrator? Does authenticity really matter? And exactly whose life story is she really interested in: artist, forger or authenticator?

The three countercultural rebels – Lydis, Renée and Enriqueta – remain enigmas, with the narrator realising (much like Cusk) that “the idea of character, with a clearly outlined history, linear psychology and coherent way of behaving, is one of literature’s great fallacies”. She adds: “We have little and nothing: only what we are today, at a stretch what we did yesterday and, with luck, what we’re going to do tomorrow.”

The narrator’s quest might be futile but it provides a way for her to keep an imaginary conversation going with her deceased mentor. And in the process, Gainza weaves a fascinating, often confounding story about beauty, obsession and authenticity. At one point, she agrees with Oscar Wilde that insincerity isn’t really so terrible a thing. “It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities. Perhaps all our sadness can be attributed to living trapped within ourselves. Perhaps it’s only the counterfeiter who finds a way past this obstacle.”

Gainza clearly delights in the lives of bohemians, though tales of their giddy, romantic capers are tempered by a mordant, disenchanted narrator who put me in mind of Ottessa Moshfegh’s protagonist in My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Gainza’s fiction, however, has more in common with Roberto Bolaño’s, with themes of art and infamy, craft and theft. Like Bolaño, she writes stories within stories, each with its own melancholy mood and unsolvable mystery.

I confess that I didn’t find Portrait of an Unknown Lady as enthralling as Optic Nerve, not helped by a few awkwardnesses in the translation (eg “Alfonso suddenly seemed to step off his hurtling erotic toboggan”). But this is still a novel with many beautiful, confounding moments. Maria Gainza is sharp, modern and playful, a writer who multiplies the possibilities for fiction.

  • Portrait of an Unknown Lady by Maria Gainza, translated by Thomas Bunstead, is published by Harvill Secker (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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