‘Optic Nerve’ by María Gainza (Review)

What do Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enríquez, Ariana Harwicz, Paulina Flores, Alia Trabucco Zerán, Lina Meruane and Carolina Sanín have in common?  Well, from all the links above, it’s fairly easy to deduce that they’re writers whose work I’ve tried, and it shouldn’t be too difficult to work out that they’re all women, either.  One more thing they have in common, though, is that they’re all from Spanish-speaking countries in South America, members of a group of authors beginning to have their work translated into English – and guess what?  Today’s post introduces another writer to add to that group 🙂

María Gainza’s Optic Nerve (translated by Thomas Bunstead, review copy courtesy of Catapult) is a series of tales told by a woman living in Buenos Aires.  At first, these pieces appear to be short stories, with each even having its own title, but they’re actually connected, forming a novel concerning the narrator’s life.  She’s a writer on art history, and each of the ‘stories’ has a focus on a certain painter or painting.

The different sections consist of several interlooping strands.  We generally begin with the woman going about her day, then seeing, or being reminded of, certain paintings or artists, at which point the reader is treated to a short summary of their life and career.  As we go back and forth between the art and life in the city, there’s always a thematic connection between the narrator’s experiences and the chosen artist, but is there an overarching reason behind all these musings?  Patience, dear reader – just as with all great art, the meaning only becomes clear if you give yourself time…

Optic Nerve is an enjoyable reading experience, and both Gainza and Bunstead do excellent work to produce a delightful text.  It’s a little like walking through a gallery as a knowledgeable friend casually tells you about the paintings, while occasionally going off on tangents about their own experiences.  Here a fascinating, yet little-known, painting; there a personal anecdote, a story dragged to the surface of the psyche by a chance connection.  It makes for quite a day out.

One half of the book, then, provides glimpses into the life of the narrator, her moods, her family issues and the arguments she has with her nearest and dearest.  Her clumsiness (exemplified by being soaked by a puddle on the first page, having a minor car crash and somehow managing to sit on her glasses) is merely a symptom of a more serious malaise, a feeling that life, for whatever reason, just isn’t working out:

I felt suddenly felled, everything was a disaster, no more trying to deny it: I simply wasn’t cut out for life.  I was an army of one, and as the enemy bore down, when they were right on top of me, only then would I realise I’d forgotten my bayonet.
p.30 (Catapult, 2019)

It’s against this backdrop that we see the art.  For the narrator, rather than being just an interest or passion, it seems to be a means of coping with a life that isn’t going to plan.

The art anecdotes, a series of sketches delving into the lives of artists, are wonderful in their own right.  It’s fair to say that this is a world I know very little about, but some light googling confirmed that the artists featured, and the works described, are very real (none of the paintings appear in the book, but I would strongly recommend that you search them up as you go along).  Yet while our friend adores the paintings, the focus of the stories is less on on them than on the people who created them, with the narrator obsessed with their experiences.  We’re introduced to Cándido Lopez, the Argentinian painter at war who loses an arm (and learns how to paint with the other one); we hear of Tsuguharu Fujita’s flight from Japan to Paris, and his obsession with painting his cat; and then there’s Doménikos Theotokópoulos, better-known to you as El Greco, and his determination to outdo Michaelangelo.  It’s like Art History 101, with the juicy bits included.

Within these sketches of the artists, there are some common threads.  Gainza portrays her subjects as special people, existing outside mainstream society.  Many are seen, by her and their contemporaries, as rebels and outsiders, and often as depressive losers:

The critics branded Schiavoni a weirdo, a middling talent, a painter merely of instinct.  But he was no naïf.  It was in 1935, in the space of a few months, that people began to come around to him. An article in a Rosario newspaper censured the city for its failure to recognize him: one of the great Argentinian painters of all time was in their midst, and they had failed to notice.  Schiavoni was in the insane asylum by this point. (pp.158/9)

For those who have been paying attention, a theme seems to be emerging here, one that ties in nicely with the narrator’s own life.  This may be a book exploring life and art, but there’s an awful lot about failure here, too.

One of the interesting features of Optic Nerve is the balancing act the writer must perform between the two strands.  At times, the narrator’s own experiences seem to be there merely to act as a springboard into art history (this reminded me of James Herriot books where, within a few lines, something seen by the side of the road takes our veterinary narrator back to a morning spent with his arm inside a cow…), and yet, gradually, it starts to make more sense.  There are obvious connections between the experiences of the artist and her own life, such as the horses she sees at the hippodrome and those painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as her fear of flying and Henri Rousseau’s hot-air balloons.  In a novel of stories as therapy, her own slowly emerges from those of the artists she adores.

Which is not to say that the book is perfect by any means, and I did discern a few issues.  There are two sections where the writer switches from 1st- to 2nd-person point of view, with no apparent reason for the choice (if anyone can shed more light on that, please do).  In addition, there’s a sense in places that while it’s all intriguing, it’s a little loose, not really taking us anywhere, wandering in a space between the short-story and novel format.  The final section does bring things together somewhat, but I’m not sure it does it well enough to completely justify the approach.

Overall, though, despite these concerns, Optic Nerve is an absorbing work that most readers will enjoy.  A beautifully written book concerning family, failure and art, it uses fascinating historical anecdotes to provide insights into its narrator (but hopefully not the writer…).  One final suggestion to end with, though: if future editions could include the paintings, that would be wonderful – thank you 🙂

4 thoughts on “‘Optic Nerve’ by María Gainza (Review)

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