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Posted June 13, 2007
A Bold, Exciting Author from Argentina now in English Translation
César Aira, known to this reader first as a contributor to the commentary in the book 'ARGENTINA: THE GREAT ESTANCIAS', is surfacing in this country as a brilliant new voice in literature. Long famous in his native Argentina, his works are becoming available in English, in the case of AN EPISODE IN THE LIFE OF A LANDSCAPE PAINTER, through the fine translation by Chris Andrews. Aira is a writer of style, wit, immensely gifted descriptive prose, and a mind that pays homage to magical realism without mimicking it. He is an original! In this short novel Aira blends history with fiction in his recounting the adventures of Johann Moritz Rugendas, a gifted draughtsman and painter who is making his second visit to South America to paint the landscapes of Chile and Argentina from 1831 to 1847. Trained and influenced by the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, whose scientific vision of 'physiognomic totality' (definition of physiognomy:'a theory based upon the idea that the study and judgment of a person's outer appearance, primarily the face, may give insights into their character or personality. The term physiognomy is also used to refer to the general appearance of a person, object, or terrain, without reference to its underlying or scientific characteristics') Aria wished to apply to painting. Rugendas is accompanied by a fellow German Robert Krause, a man whose paintings by Rugendas' standards were poor but whose demeanor made him the perfect friend and traveling companion. Together the travel through the Andes, longing for adventure such as Indian raids to paint, and eventually wander into the pampas of Argentina where they encounter life altering experiences: Rugendas is struck twice by lightning and dragged by his terrified horse, an accident which peels the skin from his face leaving him severely disfigured - but undaunted. The remainder of the 'episode' relates how Rugendas, now requiring massive doses of morphine to control his pain, encounters Indian raids that he and Krause sketch and paint. In Aira's words 'An artist always learns something from the practice of his art, even in the most constraining circumstances, and in this case Rugendas discovered an aspect of the physiognomic procedure that had so far escaped his notice. Namely that it was based on repetition: fragments were reproduced identically, barely changing their location in the picture...the fragment's outline could be affected by perspective. As small and as large as the Taoist dragon....Repetitions: in other words, the history of art.' And just as Aira is able to address cerebral issues such as this and incorporate them into his character's mold, he is also able to write some of the most comical prose encountered in literature today. Aira's spectrum of writing skill, even in this small volume, is amazing. He is at once able to entertain with wildly inventive storylines while enhancing the reader's knowledge and wrapping it all in balanced comedic and dramatic terms. The next novel to be translated is HOW I BECAME A NUN - and we can only hope that the rest of his output is made available to us soon. Highly recommended author, highly recommended book! Grady HarpWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.