With each decision you make, with each action you engage in, you create a ripple effect consisting of counter-choices and counter-actions, and you create, for yourself and others, new realities, while simultaneously discarding an infinite number of potential realities. I hope that is clear, but if it isn’t an example would probably help. Imagine that you are walking down the street, and you could turn either left or right. In making your decision, whether left or right, you have created a reality that will have [perhaps good and perhaps bad, more likely both] consequences in terms of your life and the life of others, and you will have discarded a reality, or existence, which would have sprung up had you made a different choice. The conclusion one draws from this is rather banal, which is that life is unstable. This is not, however, the same as saying that it is chaos, because there is a sophisticated order involved in our relationships with each other and with the world, such that it is as though we are tied together with invisible string, not only to everything that exists in the present, but in the past also.
Cesar Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is, as the title suggests, concerned with a brief period in the life of an artist. That artist is the German ‘documentary painter’ Johann Moritz Rugendas, a real man who was born 29th March 1802 and died on 29th May 1858. Despite being under one hundred pages in length, Aira’s novel is decidedly complex. The Argentine author provides the reader with a sizeable amount of background information in relation to Rugendas, and he discusses at length his artistic process and aims, the most significant of which is the desire to capture the physiognomy of nature or, in other words, the characteristic traits of a certain place.
What this suggests to me, and in fact what all art suggests to me, is actually a desire to stabilise the world, to fix it, to explain it, to make it understandable, to impose order upon it. Indeed, more than once Rugendas asks himself whether he would be able to capture in a painting an event, a moment, such as, for example, a landscape being stripped bare by locusts. Therefore, even though he doesn’t say so, the artist is himself obviously aware of this stabilising urge, because he fears, he laments, that some things are so unstable that they may not successfully be reduced to an image on a canvas.
While all this is fascinating stuff, what really excited me was how Aira uses the details of Rugendas’ life to further explore the notions of instability and order. At the beginning of the novel we are told about how one of his ancestors lost his right hand and so was forced to give up the family business of clockmaking. This man started to use his left hand, and took up painting instead, a profession subsequently taken up by following generations. Consider another example, due to Napoleon’s victories there was no call for painters of battle scenes, and so Johann was forced to paint other things, resulting in him becoming a landscape artist.
What we see here are those ties, those strings, and that sophisticated order that I was discussing in my introduction. Life is unstable, yes, but it is not chaotic. Towards the centre of the book Rugendas, while staying in a village in Mendoza, is asked whether he will ever return, and he says no, or that he might one day in the distant future. However, in no time at all, he is back in Mendoza, now a completely different man, as consequence of an apparently freak accident, which occurred due to a choice he made. In that moment, when he made his choice, he discarded a reality, and created a new one, a new life, a new Rugendas.
So, what Aira has done is give us a man whose profession involves an attempt to stabilise the world, an artist whose work is, moreover, easily comprehensible and possessed of a ‘simplicity of style,’ but whose life is absolutely unstable, while being simultaneously perfectly ordered. Ha! Outrageous. Does any of this make sense? Oh, I fear not. The upshot of all this is that An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is itself like a work of art, like a painting. For the subject, Rugendas, living each moment, one to the next, everything is random, but the novel actually allows you – the reader – to step back and appreciate the totality, the whole, the patterns, etc.
“It was not really rain so much as a benign drizzle, enveloping the landscape in gentle tides of humidity all afternoon. The clouds came down so low they almost landed, but the slightest breeze would whisk them away… and produce others from bewildering corridors which seemed to give the sky access to the center of the earth. In the midst of these magical alterations, the artists were briefly granted dreamlike visions, each more sweeping than the last. Although their journey traced a zigzag on the map, they were heading straight as an arrow towards openness.”
I have devoted more of this review than I intended to discussing these ideas. Certainly, it is not all that the book has to offer. One could, of course, read it as a straightforward adventure story, and it works wonderfully as just that. It also, in ways that, as an Englishman, I don’t think I am qualified to fully understand, has something to say about Argentina, and the Argentinian landscape. We are told that Rugendas had a particular interest in the country, especially the mystical, vast emptiness to be found on the open plains. Only there, he thought, could he discover the other side of his art. Therefore, Argentina, and what is particular to that country, in terms of its physiognomy, is special, is a challenge. Indeed, there is much in the book – as noted in relation to the locusts – about failure of imagination or the limits of art. Rugendas, Aira suggests, wanted to break through those limits, and create a new kind of art, when in fact what he creates, as previously mentioned, is a new Rugendas.
One final thing, before concluding. In Balzac’s Lost Illusions, the rotund, coffee-loving Frenchman was at pains to stress how the world was involved in a process of cheapening, whereby everything that was once well-put together, well-made, expertly crafted, was becoming shoddy. He used examples of paper, of furniture, and so on. I have always been of the opinion that it also applied to literature. I associate modern fiction with badly constructed sentences, dull story-lines, awful, cliched imagery. Based on so many unfulfilling experiences, I now actively avoid newly published writers. So, it was something of a shock, or a pleasant surprise, to find that this book – published in the year 2000 – completely floored [flawed?] me, even though it has drawn from me one of my worst reviews. Sorry Cesar. I know what I wanted to say, but I ended up not saying it in far too many words.