In the Buenos Aires art world, a master forger has achieved legendary status. Rumored to be a woman, she specializes in canvases by the painter Mariette Lydis, a portraitist of Argentinean high society. But who is this absurdly gifted creator of counterfeits? What motivates her? And what is her link to the community of artists who congregate, night after night, in a strange establishment called the Hotel Melancólico?
Portrait of an Unknown Lady, translated by Thomas Bunstead, is a seemingly more conventional novel about a high society con artist in 1960s Argentina. But like Optic Nerve, it’s a layered narrative told through impressionistic vignettes by a narrator who is attracted to the sadness and strangeness of others ... Gainza’s novel becomes a puzzle as we question the most improbable biographical details. How much has been fabricated by the narrator? Does authenticity really matter? And exactly whose life story is she really interested in: artist, forger or authenticator? ... Gainza weaves a fascinating, often confounding story about beauty, obsession and authenticity ... Like Bolaño, she writes stories within stories, each with its own melancholy mood and unsolvable mystery ... a novel with many beautiful, confounding moments. Maria Gainza is sharp, modern and playful, a writer who multiplies the possibilities for fiction.
This is a truly exquisite novel ... It is moving, clever and written with a wry precision ... The quest for Renée is ever more elusive and beyond reach. Was she a genius or a hack? ... But the book is playing a far more intricate game. It seemed plausible to give nods to writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares, given the interest in the aesthetic, the fictitious and the transgressive.
If the result resembles a set of spirited and playful sketches more than a grand, unified canvas, Portrait of an Unknown Lady does show effectively why fakes will always catch the literary eye ... A good chunk of the book – framed as entries to an auction catalogue – engagingly traces her passage from pre-war Vienna via avant-garde circles in London and Paris to Buenos Aires ... Sadly, the hunt, and the plot, peters out a bit ... These tend to feel sludgy when they should be crisp ... Thomas Bunstead’s translation smartly juggles the different registers of Gainza’s prose – with its mimicry of critical art-speak, dealers’ jargon, law-court legalese – but the sheer variety of tone itself hints at a softening of focus and outline.