Pages & Potables #1

aira episode

***NOTE: For Lent, I gave up the internet  beyond email and work-related research but I’ll periodically log on to post things, mostly items written prior to Ash Wednesday and post-dated. Don’t expect much from me till April.***

Last week’s potable: Coffee with chicory, straight from Cafe Du Monde
Last week’s book: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by César Aira

Why have I read 6 César Aira novellas, if I’m not always sure I even like him? I mean, he’s always funny enough to carry me through his oddball detours—and there are many, and the detours have a habit of devouring the main narrative. But, then, there are his densities, his tendency to allow the literary scholar & cultural-studies wonk to overtake the prose. That density can be a tough slog to shovel though, even though and maybe especially because I’m never sure how seriously we’re supposed to take any of it. Some of the philosophical considerations are clearly batshit crazy but Aira’s prose is a little like the Onions satire—dry, even, and calm enough so that its reporting can be (and often is) easily mistaken for truth. Maybe that fluidity between truth and absurdity is what keeps coming back to Aira, even when he befuddles me. He blurs fact and fantasy and, in reading him, I’m forced to acknowledge the many ways that truth often looks absurd, and how the most patently ridiculous things can be dressed up to appear “normal” and “respectable.” Someone at 2Blowhards.com once wrote that, even if you don’t care for a particular Georges Simenon novella, at least it’ll be over soon, and it’s rarely dull. I feel the same way about César Aira. (Lest you think I’m damning with faint praise, let me go on record as loving both Shantytown and Varamo, and thinking that Ghosts is this close to being a masterpiece.) Anyway, here comes An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. It ain’t Aira’s best—at least that I’ve read; he’s published over 80 novellas, only about a dozen of which have been translated into English—but it’s maybe the most quintessential of his fictions. The landscape painter in question is Johann Moritz Rugendas, an actual German painter of note—from a long line of painters—who captured South American cultures and terrains during the mid-1800s. His work’s in museums. His first (of two) voyages to the continent produced a groundbreaking and very lucrative book documenting the region for Europeans who would come to know South America only through paintings. So far, mostly true—or at least confirmed by Wikipedia, though it looks like he didn’t make that second voyage that Aira mentions in his novella. And that’s just the first weirdness. Rugendas supposedly believes that landscape painting can document the “physiognomic” nature of all existence, boiled down to 17 characteristics, so that painting is a kind of surgical inquiry into life’s origins. He sees himself as an almost literal doctor, taking the temperature of the world he documents through painting. At least, that’s what I could make of the philosophy. It sounds insane because it is. But Aira’s prose seems to take these theories seriously. In doing so, I’m reminded that we used to believe the world was flat, that the sun revolved around the Earth, that there were four humors, and that phrenology was viable science. I chuckled. Oh that Aira, having fun with our old pseudo-sciences! Then I remember that great swarms of people, right fucking now, believe in strict Creationism (whatever that is), that vaccination is the devil, that The Bell Curve isn’t racist junk but genuine insight based on physiognomy, and that homosexuals can be “cured.” The laughs caught in my throat. Aira’s good at doing that. But, as I said before, he’s good at confusing us, too. The novella is supposedly documenting a life-changing event in Rugendas’s life, which happened in Argentina during the artist’s first trip. But it’s not quite clear what the episode is—a night amid lightning in which Rugendas’s face gets disfigured (didn’t happen); a new way of seeing the world, through black lace, that redefines how he paints (probably didn’t happen); a witnessing of an Indian raid that he sketched frantically and the subsequent paintings of which that solidified his fame (maybe did happen); or just the voyage through the Argentinian desert itself (probably happened). It’s not completely clear why this episode was chosen/made up, what Rugendas learned ultimately from it, or what we as readers are supposed to make of it. (As far as I can tell, the real Rugendas either participated in or was accused of participating in a Mexican political revolution during his first voyage, and that’s why he was kicked out. That episode seems more, um, telling than this apolitical fable.) Aira, as usual, doesn’t do a snap-to-it ending here but more of a slow dissolve into… our imaginations, I guess. His prose dazzles, making us see Rugendas’s adventures with painterly detail, but I’m not sure all the brushstrokes add up to a painting. I liked looking, anyway.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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