An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by Cesar Aira

César Aira is one of the most prolific contemporary Argentinian writers. His “An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter” recounts the transformation of Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858), a German painter who is deformed during one of his travels across South America. This ‘deformation’ in reality is a transformation as well, as Rugendas begins to look beyond the beautiful landscapes of South America and into the faces of the native Indians. This change in perspective happens when Rugendas is struck by a lightening bolt.

It has certainly been one of the more unexpectedly wonderful books I came across this year, elegant with a dense story that is most poignant when the bolt of lightening strikes Rugendas and transforms him even while deforming his face forever.

The storm broke suddenly with a spectacular lightening bolt that traced a zig- zag arc clear across the sky. It came so close that Rugenda’s upturned face, frozen in an expression of idiotic stupor, was completely bathed in white light. He thought he could feel its sinister heat on his skin, and his pupils contraced to pin- points… From that moment on, like all victims of personlized catastrophes, he saw himself as if from outside, wondering. Why did it have to happen to me?

The introduction to the 87 page novella is by Roberto Bolaño who remarks in his preface:

Aira is an eccentric, but he is also one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today.

The novel reminded me of Raj Kapoor’s early film Aag which investigates the same dialectic of Beauty and the Beast, but this book is far more spectacular in its meditation on the relationship between reality and art, as well as an encounter, or clash, if you like, of civilizations.

A more detailed review.

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bhupinder singh

reader, mainly and an occasional blogger

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