cover image Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere

Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere

George Perec, trans. from the French by David Bellos. Univ. of Chicago, $20 (144p) ISBN 978-0-226-05425-4

In this absurdist thriller by the late Perec (Life: A User's Manual), written in 1960, an art forger finds himself on the run and in an existential quandary after his attempt to produce a Renaissance masterpiece goes south. The story begins just after counterfeiter Gaspard Winckler murders his dealer, Anatole Madera. Winckler is trapped in his subterranean studio with one of Madera's thugs guarding the only exit. Via stream-of-consciousness recollections, the painter explains how he got himself into this predicament. Tasked by Madera with forging a %E2%80%9Ctop-of-the-range Renaissance piece," Winckler set out to create a new masterwork by Antonello da Messina, whose 1475 portrait of a mercenary gives this early Perec manuscript its title. But Winckler viewed the result as a failure (%E2%80%9CThis was not an artist grasping the world and his own self in a single glance; it was the somewhat haphazard and decidedly murky back-and-forth of a constructed ambiguity... where the artist was just a minor demon of truth made uncertain"), and for reasons that remain unclear, he slashed Madera's throat. Winckler eventually escapes the studio and recounts his tale to a friend. Perec's first novel bears traces of the experimentalism that the French author was later known for, sliding between first-, second-, and third-person narration (with occasional forays into Nouveau Roman%E2%80%93esque no-person narration). The premise is interesting enough, but this resurrected trunk novel will primarily appeal to diehard Perec fans. (Apr.)