Portrait of an Unknown Lady

Maria Gainza, trans. from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead. Catapult, $24 (192p) ISBN 978-1-64622-032-8

Gainza (Optic Nerve) returns with a ruminative account of the pursuit of a master forger who has gone off the grid in a dreamy Buenos Aires. The unnamed narrator, a young woman, works for art authenticator Enriqueta Macedo, who for decades has been fraudulently authenticating paintings forged by a woman named Renée, who specialized in passing off works of Mariette Lydis, one of the country’s greatest portraitists (“They resemble women about to turn into animals, or animals not since long made human,” the narrator says of Lydis’s subjects). Gainza paints an impressionistic group portrait of artist, authenticator, and forger: Lydis’s flight from Nazi-occupied Vienna to Argentina, recounted through an auction catalog (“Painting is worth more if there’s a story behind it”); Enriqueta’s initiation as a young woman into a group called the Melancholical Forgers, Inc.; and Renée’s reign during the “golden age of art forgery.” The narrator, who after Enriqueta’s death becomes an art critic, is intrigued by Renée as a biographical subject, and embarks on a quest to track down the long-since-disappeared counterfeiter. Digressions, aphorisms, and dead ends pile up along the way in a hypnotic search defined by “Sehnsucht... the German term denoting a melancholic desire for some intangible thing.” The characters’ incertitude and the narrative’s lack of resolution only intensify the mysterious communion Gainza evokes between like-minded souls. This captivating work is one to savor. (Mar.)
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