February 29, 2024 | Rome, Italy

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter

By |2018-03-21T18:28:06+01:00May 1st, 2007|Recent Reviews|

By César Aira, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews

New Directions, 2006 (2000). 87 pages.


ira’s unique novella intertwines the zeal of Edgar Allen Poe (“The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym”) and the occultist industry of Jorge Luis Borges (with Blake and Coleridge in the shadows). Aires, an Argentine like Borges, fictionally redirects the life of early 19th-century German landscape artist Johann Moritz Rugendas to probe altered states and art.

Seeking out the pampas while traveling on horseback between the Chilean border and Buenos Aires, Rugendas veers into a locust-scourged netherworld “(“lunar oceans”) where he and his horse are twice struck by lightening (“The horse was spinning around on its side like a crab, cells of fire exploding around it in thousands, forming a sort of full-body halo…”) Hauled face-down for miles by the terrified creature, Rugendas is left monstrously disfigured (“a purple-faced lion”), opium-nourished, and bewitched by “cerebral short-circuiting” that slurs the distance between technique and incantation.

Has the drugged and defiled Rugendas gone mad or is lightening a rod for visual acuity? Aira writes in the manner of an architect commissioned to trace the transcendent, his prose an alarming admixture of the obvious and the impossible. Like Dali, he builds battleships from thin air and commands them to sail like comets. They do. It’s a union of optic-nerve mysticism — European romanticism and South American exoticism — that delivers “morphine landscape” surrealism before anyone thought to invent it.

It’s as if Aira and his Rugendas want to steal ahead of history and find a language for that space. Taught and mesmerizing stuff, beautifully translated by Chris Andrews.

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