Two counterfeiters and a small crocodile enter a sauna

By Maria Gainza
Translated by Thomas Bunstead

The anonymous narrator of “Portrait of an Unknown Woman”, the twilight but dreamy novel by María Gainza, looks back on a life led in the shadow of imposture. From the solitary cocoon of a hotel room, she deposits her memory of events—which, in Thomas Bunstead’s elegant Spanish translation, suggests that, at least as far as the air of the world of art, Buenos Aires is something of a misnomer.

Yet the written testimony of a seasoned supplier of counterfeit art may well be as unreliable as their appraisals. She learns on the knees of the cynical Enriqueta Macedo, Argentina’s “preeminent art authentication expert”, who uses her position at the Ciudad Bank to sell certificates of authenticity – and feels that her protege has an innate talent. for fraud. Recruitment is done through clouds of steam in a discreet sauna.

Finally, Enriqueta dies a natural death, but not before telling our narrator the stories of the mythical, seedy Hotel Switzerland, home to an international circle of hashish-smoking bohemians. These include the mysterious Renee, famous among forgers for being “able to enter another’s soul”. The hotel owner, Enriqueta recounts, owned a work by the fashionable socialite portrait painter Mariette Lydis which Enriqueta immediately deemed a brilliant fake. Displaying the intellectual vanity that is both the blessing and the curse of the gifted forger, with “one look”, Renée virtually confirmed the diagnosis, thus beginning a comfortable, lasting and successful business relationship.

Long after our narrator has left the bank and turned to rambling art criticism, the Hotel Suisse crowd beats unexpectedly toward his door. Lozinski, a former Russian admiral from the old Vladivostok railway station, presents him with artworks, documents and ephemera that cast beams of penetrating light on the enigmatic artist Lydis, whose Austro-Hungarian pedigree, though questionable, once turned heads in the best ranches. This reserve of documentation is for sale.

Our narrator becomes enthralled with the search for the elusive Renée, whose career declined with the popularity of Mariette Lydis. She, like her subject, has drifted off into the darkness and seems to have relished his cold embrace. Renée’s increasingly feverish hunt is frustrated by memory lapses, lack of detail, depressing gaps, unreliable hearsay, dead ends. In the disaster favela where she was seen once, didn’t Renée keep a little crocodile called Abdul under her bed? There are those who say so. It also seems unlikely that Renée ever developed an unnecessary passion for Russian roulette in bars, but one or two others swear she did. Her fakes are all that’s left of her, but few can even recognize them.

Meanwhile, artist Lydis (better known to high society as Countess Govone) swims in ridiculously vivid focus, every part and portion of her unlikely life exhaustively documented, but ravaged on the shores of disbelief. Did she share a home in the Cotswolds for a time with Karl Marx’s granddaughter? When she arrived in Buenos Aires, was her eroticism really first sold by the florist on one corner of the Plaza Hotel, accompanied by spooky shunga by Utamaro and Hokusai?

As the somber Enriqueta says at the beginning of the novel, apparently unsweetened by the sauna: “Can’t a fake give as much pleasure as an original? Without a doubt. “Isn’t there a point when fakes become more authentic than the originals?” No, I think, unless it’s people. “And isn’t the real scandal the market itself? To which we could answer, finally, and with emotion: Maybe. But never when, behaving otherwise, this market is the victim of coldly calculating embezzlement. The naughty fun of this novel has to do with our fascination with scythes, especially when performed in the cavalier fashion of Robin Hood. Maybe Buenos Aires is more forgiving, but I doubt it.

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