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.
It feels like the Argentine writer is having fun ... This is a clever novel that explores the gap between what’s remembered and what’s real, and poses questions about the nature of originality and sincerity ... Of course, fiction itself is simulation, as Gainza’s painterly prose reminds us.