It’s perhaps an unfortunate aspect of art that the value we perceive in it is at least partially derived from public opinion. Who was the work’s creator, and from what circumstances was it made? In Portrait of an Unknown Lady, the second novel from Maria Gainza that has been translated into English by Thomas Bunstead, Gainza returns to territory familiar to readers of her first work, Optic Nerve. She explores the intersections between culture and art, art and narrative, narrative and society, and studies how quickly these lines can become blurred. It’s a fast, almost noir-like novel, but fittingly for the world of the novel; it never quite settles in one place, rendering the final effect a bit too ephemeral rather than haunting.
After bursting onto the literary scene with 2014’s Optic Nerve, Gainza’s second novel to be translated into English, Portrait of an Unknown Lady will sit neatly next to one another on the bookshelf. Once again we return to the art world of Buenos Aires, though this time with a slightly different focus. Our narrator, who remains nameless aside from the “made-up name of Maria Lydis” and occasionally as “Senorita M,” has come to a hotel to make a record of “what [she] knew”; a task that proves more difficult than it initially sounds. The narrator goes on to describe how she first got a job in the Ciudad Bank alongside a woman named Enriqueta, a famed art-evaluator who soon thereafter takes the narrator under her wing. Before long, Enriqueta confides in the narrator the dirty truth: Enriqueta has been authenticating forged art. From there, the narrator is given a crash course in the process – thankfully so, as Enriqueta dies alone suddenly (a rare unexamined moment in the novel), leaving the narrator to bear this weight alone.
Enriqueta was connected to a loose association of artists, based out of the Hotel Melancholico. The bunch is as odd as you can imagine: a photographer who’s never without his suitcase, a poet with a unibrow, a translator. And of most interest to both Enriqueta and the narrator, there’s Renée. Renée and Enriqueta met at art school, where Renée was known as a gifted student, but it’s through forgery where she earns her infamy. She’s spoken of almost as a “method” forger, somehow embodying the painters she emulates, most notably Mariette Lydis. Lydis becomes the weapon of choice for Renée, who then goes on to use the funds her counterfeits generate with Enriqueta’s authenticating eye to support the rest of the rag-tag Melancholico crew.
With Enriqueta now gone, the narrator feels no particular pull toward authentication any longer, and turns her eye to art criticism (a role the narrator shares with Gainza herself). That is, until an old member of the Melancholico shows up with some Lydis memorabilia to move (authentic “As far as [he] knows”), and the narrator decides to help facilitate the sale by writing the catalogue. The sale goes surprisingly well, and the narrator turns her attention to inquiry, deciding to search for Renée herself, under the guise of writing a book.
The writing is lovely, drifting from beautiful narration into the epistolary through the catalogue. Later the documents of a criminal case, to conversations as she hunts down Renée. Gainza’s now-signature art-centric prose is on full display here, with references to countless writers and works ranging from Correggio to Blade Runner, however the constant digressions have a diluting effect. They rarely elevate certain art over the other, instead seeming to try and cloak itself in the veil of art, as in Melville’s Extracts. Unfortunately, this same affectation is felt throughout the novel. In spite of the deep questions Gainza poses about the true value of art, she never settles enough to really cut to the heart. It feels almost fitting, for a book attempting to paint the portrait of a woman through her inevitably-futile quest for another, but this inevitability too leaves the novel feeling fleeting.
There’s a lot to like in Portrait of an Unknown Lady, from the slick Argentinian high-society setting, to the lovely writing and laudable translation from Bunstead, but despite the novel’s readability I was left feeling more like a pinball than as someone in on the con. The novel’s flitting nature is written like a feature, but feels more like a bug. Of course, the actual Renée is never found, though something of her likeness is produced through the layered brush-strokes of those that knew her. Can a facsimile ever surpass the original, or at least sit alongside her? Can a good story alone elevate art? Perhaps to some degree, but the extent to which leaves a bit to be desired.
Portrait of an Unknown Lady
Translated by Thomas Bunstead
March 22, 2022
Ian is a writer based out of Chicago, and one of the Daily Editors at The Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared in The LA Review of Books, Input Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Chicago Reader, among others. He is working on a novel. Follow him on Twitter as @IanJBattaglia.