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Eye of the storm

Mark Doty is the author of several books of poetry, including "School of the Arts," and the forthcoming memoir, "Dog Years."

ART is a means of knowing; every artist works toward a way of seeing the world and, in the process, encountering or revealing the self. In this sense, all painting is “action painting,” whether it’s the gestural push and swirls of the Abstract Expressionist or the meticulous gestures of the realist out to catch the look of things. But what is it, exactly, that representational painting represents? We see the nature of things, and develop our sense of participation in whatever landscape the world presents us, through the lenses of history and culture. To apprehend the moment is to place ourselves within it -- or, rather, to examine the way we’re already inextricably there.

Cesar Aira’s strange and arresting novel “An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter” is a meditation on the act of representation and the methods we use to study and fix the world around us. If that sounds like an intellectual exercise, it’s true that Aira is firmly in the tradition of Jorge Luis Borges and W.G. Sebald, those great late modernists for whom fiction was a theater of ideas. His tense little parable (only some 80 pages long) manages to engage a remarkable array of notions about time, painting, perception, culture and the body. But Aira is a slippery, surprising writer, and his novel gradually reveals itself as a work in which contemplation of the nature of art and history is inseparable from experiences of beauty and terror.

His protagonist is a historical figure: German landscape artist Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-58), who traveled and worked extensively in Latin America in the middle years of the 19th century. Rugendas’ work fulfilled the role that photography would later play, offering the exotic to a European audience hungry for images of otherness. But his work wasn’t purely documentary. Instead, he occupied a zone somewhere between science and art. He was as interested in studying the wild array of natural phenomena as he was in representing it expressively. His art reminds us of the perceiver, the artist, the spectator who’s doing the looking. Photographs may pretend to objectivity -- in fact, the more artless they are the more anonymous and impersonal they seem -- but landscape painting can’t be impersonal. The scenes before us, even if there are no people in them, are saturated in human presence.

Rugendas is in command of a procedure for painting -- a method of capturing a landscape’s “physiognomy” -- drawn from German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. “The Humboldtian naturalist,” Aira tells us, “was not a botanist but a landscape artist sensitive to the processes of growth operative in all forms of life.” Rugendas has the method down, and for years he has painted tropical landscapes he knows will sell back home. The generally dry tone of Aira’s prose breaks out into moments of lyricism when he evokes the vastness of the South American Cordillera -- great mountains of ice, and jungles where there were “abysses within abysses and trees rose like towers from the deep underground levels.... In the streams there were sirenlike molluscs and, at the bottom, always swimming against the current, legions of pink salmon the size of lambs.”

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But this mythic wilderness, which readers may recognize from Gabriel Garcia Marquez or the great Chilean novelist Jose Donoso, isn’t the terrain of Rugendas’ imagination. His soul responds to the austere and elemental; the Argentine pampas, with their vast horizontals and immense distances, exert a mysterious pull. There, “something would, he thought, finally emerge to defy his pencil and force him to invent a new procedure.” Just how profoundly he would be defied he could not anticipate.

For Rugendas, the stark interior of the continent is also a psychic or metaphysical interior. A swarm of locusts has destroyed every bit of vegetation, and he wanders in an unyielding desert until a storm arrives of such devastating proportions that its force changes his body -- and challenges his art -- forever. It would be unfair to dilute the power of this startling central scene by revealing too much; suffice to say that what happens to Rugendas is something he could never represent on canvas, and afterward he is a physical ruin, able to go on only with tremendous self-discipline and the considerable assistance of opiates.

If art has been Rugendas’ means of charting his position in an unstable world, what will he do when his body no longer cooperates? He continues to work in this terribly compromised state, wrapping his face in a long black mantilla reminiscent of the impenetrable veil of guilt worn by the mysterious title character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Minister’s Black Veil.” Rugendas has wanted all along to paint Indians, but his travels have allowed him no such opportunity. Then, as he attempts to recuperate in Argentina’s San Rafael Valley, Indians raid the local livestock. A drugged and veiled wreck, Rugendas spends a day wandering among the marauding Indians as they battle the ranchers and rustle the cattle, sketching scenes he could later work up “in the calm of the studio” into paintings to be engraved and sold: “Except that for Rugendas the ‘calm of the studio’ was a thing of the past; now there was only torment, drugs and hallucinations.”

But the distancing act of representation has created another kind of calm. Standing at a remove, the artist brings order out of an unreadable chaos (“distance made a picture of it all”). The painter, whose work will be even further polished and distanced when the image is engraved and reproduced, must “shrink everything down to a dot, and be ready to reduce it further still. Within each circle there was a transitive, transparent cascade, from which the picture recomposed itself, as art. Tiny figures running around the landscape, in the sun. Of course, in the picture, they could be seen close up, although they were no bigger than grains of sand; the viewer could come as near as he liked, subject them to a microscopic scrutiny. And that would bring out the hidden strangeness: what would be called ‘surrealism’ a hundred years later.... “

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Surreal indeed: The black-veiled, disoriented artist is allowed to sit among the feasting, celebrating Indians as they roast their spoils. He is tolerated only because he has become terrifying, transformed into something nearly inhuman.

The artist is in crisis, but the procedure of representation goes about its business of creating distance, at once picturing the world and removing us farther from it. Is Aira’s book a vision of art’s limits or of art’s power? Aira is far too complex a thinker to come down on one side of the question or the other. Rugendas continues to make art and will do so for the remainder of his life, even returning to Argentina for an extended visit. But his life is a nightmare of physical suffering, and his dream of painting Indians, of finally coming face to face with an “other,” is fulfilled only because he has become a grotesque.

Part historical work, part aesthetic philosophy, part meditation on the frailty and persistence of the body and how it is sustained by the force of ideas, Aira’s novel is a memorable performance, whose tone and oddly compelling vision are distinctly his own. Although he has published more than 30 books in Argentina, this is the first to appear in English. May it herald many more such unsettling and elegant parables to come. *


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