An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by César Aira (Un episodio en la vida del pintor Viajero, 2000) translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver New Directions (2006) 120 pp
If you were paying attention when I wrote about Aira’s Ghosts a little while ago, you noticed that New Directions offered to send me the two other Aira books they have published. There was no hesitation and very little effort to tone down my excitement when I gratefully accepted. Ghosts gave a taste of something I haven’t seen in many other places. Aira’s unique writing process results in such a strange and unique book, one never knows what one is going to get. Indeed, this is how it feels while reading. Because Aira writes in steps, the book evolves in our hands, turning suddenly. It is astounding that with this style, Aira still produces a solid, cohesive text, one with a unity most authors would cut off their arm for.
An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is completely different than Ghosts, yet the freshness, the thrust forward into the unknown remains. I read about it on John Self’s blog, and he teased everyone with this: “What the book is saying is the book.” I think John is exactly right, but after reading it, I see that Aira actually goes a step further.
Here we read a fictional account of an episode in the life of Johann Mortiz Rugendas, a German landscape artist. He is encouraged by the ideas of Alexander von Humboldt:
Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was an all-embracing scholar, perhaps the last of his kind: his aim was to apprehend the world in its totality; and the way to do this, he believed, in conformity with a long tradition, was through vision.
Under this philosophy, Rugendas takes a trip to the Americas to record the life of Latin America. Aira gives Rugendas a particular desire to record Argentina:
Although the Mexican phase is the best represented, and tropical jungles and mountain scenes constitute his most characteristic subject matter, the secret aim of this long voyage, which consumed his youth, was Argentina: the mysterious emptiness to be found on the endless plains at a point equidistant from the horizons. Only there, he thought, would he be able to discover the other side of his art … This dangerous illusion pursued him throughout his life. Twice he crossed the threshold: in 1837, he came over the Andes from Chile, and in 1847, he approached from the east, via the Rio de la Plata. The second expedition was the more productive, but did not take him beyond the environs of Buenos Aires; on his first journey, however, he ventured towards the dreamed-of center and in fact reached it momentarily, although, as we shall see, the price he had to pay was exorbitant.
Rugendas gets to Argentina through Chile and proceeds to journey across the country, hoping to get to Buenos Aires, recording through sketches the life he sees, hoping for a bit of action and always afraid he’s going to miss some vital moment.
His other cherished dream was to witness an Indian raid. In that area, they were veritable human typhoons, but, by their nature, refractory to calendars and oracles. It was impossible to predict them: there might be one in an hour’s time or none until next year (and it was only January). Rugendas would have paid to paint one. Every morning of that month, he woke up secretly hoping the great day had come. As in the case of the earthquake, it would have been in poor taste to mention this desire.
Hopefully in the pulled quotes above, one can see Aira’s ability with language. Even when I was unsure where this was going, I was thoroughly enjoying the voyage. It is vast yet immediate, full of frenetic energy yet poised and controlled. Collecting the translated books by Aira is a worthy endeavor. Hopefully the incredibly talented Chris Andrews will continue to produce them for us.