Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Road from Orizaba to Acultzingo

New Directions have published a translation of César Aira’s novella, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, first published in 2000 in Argentina by Beatriz Viterbo Editora (a small press named after the Borges character). There is a preface by Roberto Bolaño which makes Aira sound really interesting – he has written a novel about the cloning of Carlos Fuentes and a great short story called ‘Cecil Taylor’ (whether it is about Cecil Taylor I have no idea). Bolaño says that Aira’s writings can be compared to Macedonio Fernandez (1874-1952 – the mentor of Borges) and, more recently, Enrique Vila-Matas (author of ‘Bartlby & Co.’), neither of whom I’ve read.

The book describes the travels of German painter Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-58) and centres on the moment in 1837 when he suffers a disfiguring accident while sketching in Argentina. I know little about Rugendas and therefore spent most of the book wondering where the line between fact and fiction had been drawn, a question that might be applied to the paintings of Rugendas. According to Aira, Rugendas was influenced by the theories of Alexander von Humboldt, in particular the aim of depicting nature in its ‘physiognomic totality’ (which I suppose is ironic in view of the fracturing of the artist’s own physiognomy). Humboldt believed that artists like Rugendas could uncover the unity of a landscape. Furthermore, as Aira says, the Humboldtian naturalist was ‘not a botanist but a landscape artist sensitive to the processes of growth operative in all forms of life.’

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter
is interesting but left me feeling slightly unsatisfied, perhaps because of its brevity and the way even the two central characters remained somewhat sketchy. There are some full reviews on-line, e.g. here, here and here. The paperback has as its cover both the original drawing and the oil painting of The Road from Orizaba to Acultzingo (1831). Here is one of the Rugendas images freely available on-line, a landscape in Chile.

Johann Moritz Rugendas, Two Riders Resting
Source: Wikimedia Commons