Optic Nerve by María Gainza (trans. Thomas Bunstead) — Harry Gallon

Optic Nerve, María Gainza’s English-language debut, offers a subtly intellectual, yet relievingly unpretentious exhibition of art’s most enduring qualities. Her narrator, also named María, serves as writer, curator and critic of a one-woman show, and spends her time guiding us through a plethora of paintings that represent significant points of change throughout her life.

Gainza begins with landscapes. Scene-setting. She depicts Argentina as a battlefield post-battle: still, silent, regrowing, eventually, though its topsoil is torn. Its people are still recovering from the 1976 coup d’état which overthrew President Isabel Perón, and installed the Argentine military junta. Destruction and turmoil, murder and torture remain very recent history, and men in uniform, stalwarts of masculinity, are very real phantoms in Argentine memory.

In Cándido López’s The Battle of Curupaytí, the army Gainza describes is, admittedly, considerably older than those which took part 1976 coup. López fought in the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870), and the battle he would come to paint resulted in a significant loss for the combined Argentine, Uruguayan and Brazilian forces. His army is long bereft of physicality: it is a mass of phantom soldiers, of men turned ghosts by the outdated masculinity which sent them to die in the first place.

What detail the narrator goes into about the men in her life is fed to the reader sparingly. Her husband, for instance, is given to us during the time of his first marriage, in which the father of his ex-wife is the focal point. Franio is neither one of López’s soldier-heroes nor one of the Junta’s more recent war criminals. He is a peripheral phantom, existent only within his own perpetual hangover; a relic of a past which, unlike the paintings, cannot be transplanted into the present with new relevance. Born into privilege, Franio didn’t work. He didn’t fight. He lived off the inheritance he received from his father, drank too much, mistreated women and berated his son for failings that were the only things he could actually claim as his own. What he has wasn’t earned through work. It was given to him, and if it wasn’t given, he, like the leaders of the coup, would take it.

His children suffer in the same way as the narrator: they are compelled to view the past, tolerate its pervasiveness, understand its reasoning. Trying to accept the legacy of tyranny and ensure it is not repeated is as necessary as understanding familial machinations, and both keep the young chained to them.

Delivered from that past, tired, unfinished and “the colour of unpolished granite,” this sculpture of a renewed Argentina is hewn and chipped, until the narrative shifts from the political landscape to the natural landscape.

Delivered from that past, tired, unfinished and “the colour of unpolished granite,” this sculpture of a renewed Argentina is hewn and chipped, until the narrative shifts from the political landscape to the natural landscape. The fields, rivers, coastlines and mountains that played host to some of the Junta’s atrocities become the focal point, with Gainza’s narrator as soldier in an “army of one”, who would only realise she had “forgotten her bayonet” when the enemy was “right on top of [her]”.

It is through this oneness that the narrative progresses, with Gainza mapping her life anecdotally. She uses specific paintings as grid point references and the lives of their painters as comparative stories to highlight her own personal growth, through the catastrophic emotional inclines of adolescence to the sad, slow declines of old age. These anecdotes employ motif to link the works around which they are based: landscapes and ocean waves trigger memories of growing up in post-dictatorship Argentina, and the paintings the author refers to in each chapter link them until a more detailed portrait of the artist can be framed.

Whilst recounting the life of Gustave Courbet, the narrator recalls a road trip she took as a teenager to Mar del Plata, a place where the ocean and Argentine coastline brings to her mind Courbet’s Stormy Sea. We watch her boyfriend surf, while she reimagines the painting as the world in which she lives: “the sky and sea [melding] into one… packed with bulging pinkish clouds.”

The exclusivity which famous male artists enjoy in this book is used by Gainza to compare the role of men as destroyers with that of men as creators. She subverts the dichotomy of war and art with the classic trope that art results from war. Meanwhile, the less famous artists are categorised with those who neither create nor destroy, and exist in the margins of political and art history as inconsequential. Women, similarly, remain peripheral, decorative, curated by husbands who see them as disposable. The narrator lives through these painters, these men, and despite recalling only women writers’ words when describing the sea (Plath, Tsvetaeva), it is the male artists’ passage across those waters that sustains her period of “luminosity” and allows it to remain a “bright nodule in [her] mind for days” after.

The peripheral painters, the non-aggressors and non-creators, the women, are left lingering. Struggling through disease and old age, their bodies, like lesser-known artists, fail. They become parched, bleached and faded. They tear where they have been folded and their colour drains as the edges of their frames become worn. Of the deep, dark, grumbling sky in El Greco’s View of Toledo, Gainza says it is “the kind beneath which only terrible or solemn events may occur.” A disappearance, perhaps. Or, far worse, a decline.

As the day goes on and the young narrator gets more stoned, the sun begins to set, “lighting the funereal clouds blood-purple.” Gianza highlights the lonely joy of the ocean, the homesickness it carries and the overwhelming sense of possibility one gets when looking towards the horizon. Simultaneous is the feeling that something significant is coming to an end.

It is with that feeling that I finished this book. It took me longer to finish Optic Nerve than it would usually a novella of this length. I found myself constantly pausing and reaching for my phone or computer, to search for visual references to the works described and, at times, staring at them for what, though mere minutes, felt like hours. Such is Gainza’s ability to make her readers go in search of the response to art she so easily seems to find. And yet there is no need for any knowledge of these painters, some contemporary, most long dead, or of their works, which is relieving for the reader (such as myself) less inclined to visiting galleries than they are bookshops.

As a well-established art critic, Gainza offers sparing description of the works her fictionalised self encounters, preferring critical analysis of the self than of the art that self identifies with. This does, however, make Gainza’s voice feel a little restrained, as though allowing us to touch only the surface of her experiences. She wants to avoid telling us what we should think about art, advising us to “keep [our] eyes unfocused” when first entering a gallery, because all art is “a mirror” and the viewer must be ready to receive their reflection at random, from any piece that successfully pierces the blur. She found hers quite by chance, in Augusto Schiavoni’s Girl Seated, which held an uncanny, unsettling and ghostlike resemblance to herself as a child.

Her first foray into fiction (or autofiction), it is clear throughout Optic Nerve that Gainza knows the limitations of language and the problems faced when writing about something that can stimulate so visceral, so often undescribable, a feeling. The fact that the book does not fail to encompass those feelings, and makes even the reader respond in the way the author does, is testament to both Gainza’s skill and that of translator Thomas Bunstead. Nevertheless, when faced with works of art, written or visual, one might often feel put on the spot, with words no richer in descriptive power than “Fuck me” to distinguish the work in which you see yourself from the one that never made it past your corneas.

María Gainza was born in Buenos Aires, where she still resides. She has worked as a correspondent for The New York Times in Argentina, as well as for ARTnews. She has also been a contributor to Artforum, The Buenos Aires Review, and Radar, the cultural supplement from Argentine newspaper Página/12. She is coeditor of the collection Los Sentidos (The Senses) on Argentinean art, and in 2011 she published Textos elegidos (Selected Texts), a collection of her notes and essays on contemporary art. Optic Nerve is her first work of fiction and her first book to be translated into English.

Thomas Bunstead is a writer and translator based in East Sussex, England. He has translated some of the leading Spanish-language writers working today, including Eduardo Halfon, Yuri Herrera, Agustín Fernández Mallo, and Enrique Vila-Matas, and his own writing has appeared in publications such as Kill Author, The White Review, and The Times Literary Supplement. He is an editor at the translation journal In Other Words.

Harry Gallon’s work features in numerous publications and has won (and almost won), several competitions. His debut novel, The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes, was runner-up for Best Novella at the 2016 Saboteur Awards, and was longlisted for Not the Booker Prize. His second, Every Fox is a Rabid Fox, was published in 2017. He lives in London and is writing his third. @hcagallon

Image: EmptyBenches_TheMET(177b), Regan Vercruysse, Creative Commons