An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter

rugendas

 A landscape by the man himself, public domain via wikimedia

This is the most realistic, low-key Cesar Aira novel I have read yet.  A strange thing to say about a story that has an Indian raid and a man struck by lightning.  Other than the immediate effects of the strike, though, there’s nothing that approaches the fantastic coincidences, ghosts and B-movie monsters of his other novels.  The main character is even a real person.

In the early nineteenth century, German landscape painter Johann Moritz Rugendas is making his second trip to South America.  He has already published a successful book of engravings of Brazil.  Under the influence of Alexander von Humboldt, he intends to make a more systematic record of the forms of the natural world.  He diverges from his mentor, however, in being drawn from the profusion of the tropical jungle to the vast emptiness of the Argentine Pampas.  As Rugendas descends from the Andes, heading eastward into the plains, Aira writes suggestively of the shocking volumes of empty air, and of great wagons carrying goods from Mendoza to Buenos Aires which travel so slowly that to the traveller they seem to move backwards in time.

In Varamo, Aira purportedly constructed a day in the life of a civil servant so disastrous and improbable that it inspired a modernist poem of the utmost genius.  Episode is a more complicated version of artistic inspiration.  Rugendas’ mastery and dedication to his art are emphasized from the beginning.  Also, from the beginning we are prepared for a crucial turning point in the artist’s life, a catastrophe.  After being struck by lightning, dragged by his horse, and badly disfigured, Rugendas is afflicted with horrendous migraines and becomes dependent on opium.  And yet, he remains the artist.  Things seem to go on almost as before.

I read this very fast and can’t pretend to give a totally coherent explanation.  Clearly, Aira is commenting on the artistic life in general.  Rugendas faces constant uncertainty and challenges from both within and without.  It’s interesting that he writes a great deal in the aftermath of his accident; it’s not creative writing, but in merely corresponding with his patrons and relatives, he describes the same events in ways that don’t seem to be the same.  It’s hard to pin down Aira’s tone, and I’m sure his sufferings could be read as brutal satire rather than some kind of tribute.  Some later scenes of the novel are more like the madcap Aira I had been used to, but the stage props are more down to earth, such as a mantle or veil with which Rugendas protects his dilated pupils. 

The more I think about it, the more I can imagine returning to this book ahead of Aira’s others, not because it’s immediately more enjoyable, but because the plot seems to conform more closely to his philosophic preoccupations.  On the whole, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter reads like some type of fantasy art history (not a real genre as far as I know), or like reports of the lives of explorers and soldiers which astound us with their violence and heroism while maddening with their laconic dignity.

Aira and Watterson

This past year I read two more novels by Cesar Aira, Ghosts, and The Literary Conference.  It’s hard for me to say why, but I felt let down by the first, and then the latter somewhat restored my opinion of Aira.  I may read parts of Ghosts again.  It’s set in Buenos Aires, and was somehow true to my experience of that city, where I had a great time although I found it very different from what I expected.  Perhaps it’s interesting, though, that no examples of an appealing parallel I thought of immediately occur to me from Ghosts.

Over this holiday break I spent some time at home reading old Calvin and Hobbes collections, and I found myself thinking of Watterson when I was copying out passages of Aira.  In The Literary Conference, the mad scientist narrator accidentally creates a swarm of giant blue worms, each one “as lethal as a soft skyscraper come to life”, that attacks an Andean city.  He explains, “if they had been magnified to that absurd size, it was simply because I had set the cloning machine to run in “genius” mode.”  That was when I thought of Calvin’s cardboard box.  Right side up, it’s a time machine, facedown, a transmogrifier, and on its side, a duplicator that can easily be enhanced with a good/evil dial.

Another connection of sorts that occurred to me was the regularity rally that appears in Varamo (an invention, I thought, but apparently real) in which the object is to drive across Panama at as close to constant speed as possible.  Anarchists exploit this event to stage a cunning attack on a high ranking minister, leading, in no straightforward way, to the climax of the novel.  Calvin and Hobbes has not only Calvinball, but a slowness race, “the secret base”, cross country football, and full contact golf.  If any authors should be described as playful, Aira and Watterson are two.  It’s not just creativity, but the blunt and unapologetic way in which the fantastic is brought into everyday life.

Of course I have no reason to expect all of Aira’s work to strike me in the same way; he has a large body of work and it will be interesting to see how it percolates into English.  Though I read just two novels of his this year, I included him on a list of the ten or so defining features of my reading this year.  I guess I’ll have to say more of that another time.

Varamo

I’ve been hearing good things about Cesar Aira for a while now.  I’m not sure what I read and where, but when I was looking for something diverting and found a clutch of the Argentine’s novellas at my bookstore, I knew that Varamo was the one I wanted to try.  Varamo is a Panamanian civil servant in the early twentieth century, a sort of amiable nonentity who suffers through a series of fantastic episodes the night after an upsetting incident at work.  Some of these episodes are very funny, from slapstick involving a (possibly) dead fish to a cafe conversation with three cutthroat publishers.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but Aira’s plotting is not exactly seamless.  I have a vague notion that it’s in the cool reaction to jarring events over which the protagonist has no control that I detect a similarity to other South American writing.  Interestingly, it was easy to tell, not because of any serious anachronism, but because of minor characterizations, that Varamo is a totally contemporary novel, as opposed, for example, to something like Epitaph for a Small Winner.  Though I still wonder if there is a distinctively South American tone, Aira is not some rehashing of Borges.

I feel like I neglected an important way of reading Varamo, though it’s hard to say how much hope should be held out for it and how much my failure to bear it in mind the first time around is a reflection on me or on Aira.  The novel involves a poem, a masterpiece of modern literature, which, naturally, the reader is not given directly.  The reader is, however, explicitly told that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the poem and the day in the life of Varamo.  I’d like to try again, paying more attention to some of the more meditative, less madcap, and hence, oddly, less explicable parts of the novel.  At any rate, I hope to return to Varamo and Aira soon.