A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
New York Times Notable author María Gainza, who dazzled critics with Optic Nerve, returns with the captivating story of an auction house employee on the trail of an enigmatic master forger
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?
On the trail of this mysterious forger is our narrator, an art critic and auction house employee through whose hands counterfeit works have passed. As she begins to take on the role of art-world detective, adopting her own methods of deception and manipulation, she warns us “not to proceed in expectation of names, numbers or dates . . . My techniques are those of the impressionist.”
Driven by obsession and full of subtle surprise, Portrait of an Unknown Lady is a highly seductive and enveloping meditation on what we mean by "authenticity" in art, and a captivating exploration of the gap between what is lived and what is told.
Gainza (Optic Nerve) returns with a ruminative account of the pursuit of a master forger who has gone off the grid in a dreamy Buenos Aires. The unnamed narrator, a young woman, works for art authenticator Enriqueta Macedo, who for decades has been fraudulently authenticating paintings forged by a woman named Ren e, who specialized in passing off works of Mariette Lydis, one of the country's greatest portraitists ("They resemble women about to turn into animals, or animals not since long made human," the narrator says of Lydis's subjects). Gainza paints an impressionistic group portrait of artist, authenticator, and forger: Lydis's flight from Nazi-occupied Vienna to Argentina, recounted through an auction catalog ("Painting is worth more if there's a story behind it"); Enriqueta's initiation as a young woman into a group called the Melancholical Forgers, Inc.; and Ren e's reign during the "golden age of art forgery." The narrator, who after Enriqueta's death becomes an art critic, is intrigued by Ren e as a biographical subject, and embarks on a quest to track down the long-since-disappeared counterfeiter. Digressions, aphorisms, and dead ends pile up along the way in a hypnotic search defined by "Sehnsucht... the German term denoting a melancholic desire for some intangible thing." The characters' incertitude and the narrative's lack of resolution only intensify the mysterious communion Gainza evokes between like-minded souls. This captivating work is one to savor.