Optic Nerve, the Argentine writer María Gainza's first novel, tells the reader very little about its protagonist. Her name is María, like her creator; she's an art critic from a fallen-aristocracy background; she lives in Buenos Aires; and at some point in her life, she becomes scared of flying. That's about it. But Gainza, in a gorgeous translation by Thomas Bunstead, mines María's elusiveness — and allusiveness; she's great with a well-placed quotation — to create a highly compelling life story told almost entirely through art.
Each chapter of Optic Nerve works the same way. María combines an art experience with a biographical one, using the former to understand or illuminate the latter. This is never a guessing game. The parallels are always clear, beginning in the first chapter, in which an Albert de Dreux painting of a deer triggers María's memory of a friend who died in a freak hunting accident. "I cannot tell what I should do with a death as ridiculous as hers," she admits, "as pointless and hypnotic, nor do I know why I mention it now, though I suppose it's always probably the way: you write one thing in order to talk about something else."
This self-awareness runs throughout the novel. María constantly catches her own rhetorical strategies. She exposes them, then continues to use them, exhibiting her critical tricks alongside a steady stream of criticism. Gainza's strategy here is bold, and effective. Plenty of novelists invent writers and artists in whose talent the reader is expected to believe. J.D. Salinger assumes no one will question the Glass family's genius; Elena Ferrante feels no need to give samples of the fictional Elena's writing. Optic Nerve does the reverse. It's a book about an art critic, and it's full of extremely good art criticism. We know María's the real deal.
María's descriptions of art are one of Optic Nerve's great pleasures. Without fail, they are lyric but unpretentious, imaginative and compelling. A red Rothko painting "seeps into you bodily, not so much through your eyes as like a fire at stomach level. At points it even seems to me that Rothko creates not so much works of art as smoldering, endless blocks of fire, akin to the burning bush from Exodus." Or, for those who prefer the Renaissance, there's El Greco's painting of Christ in the olive grove, in which "gravity functions in reverse: something draws the figures skyward, sucking them in the direction of the clouds, like the bubbles in the lava lamps of my adolescence."
All this might seem a bit over-intellectualized, but thanks to Gainza's dry wit and realism, it's the reverse. María might like citing the morose Italian poet Cesare Pavese, but she's also prone to invoking the "reality-TV rule: as long as no children are harmed, anything goes." She seems immune to snobbery and grounded in her own body and experiences. Most importantly, she's very skeptical of her own intelligence. She doesn't doubt how smart she is; nor does she set much store by it. Early in her career, she decides, "To ever feel that you understand anything only means that your mind has turned rigid." By the time she becomes a fully professional writer, she has learned to respect her physical responses to art, "to pay attention to [them], because my body always works things out before I do. Only afterward does my intellect draw its conclusions."
María may not care much about her intellect, but she's still got a massive amount to teach the reader. She begins the novel as a tour guide, and functions as one throughout, leading the reader through both Argentina's National Museum of Fine Art and through her own life. Optic Nerve would be worth reading as an art history lesson alone; its descriptions of great paintings are phenomenal, as are its lives-of-the-artists anecdotes. The best and most heartbreaking is a party Picasso threw in Rousseau's honor. At the end, "all the guests stood to applaud the brilliance of [Rousseau], and tears were flowing freely as they led him out to his car — only for Picasso, with the cruelty of all true cowards, to confess that the whole thing had been a joke." That joke echoes María's own rejection of the art world's glamorous side. There's no condemnation or moralizing, only a quiet turning away from money and parties, toward brilliance wherever she can find it.
Optic Nerve is intentionally quiet throughout. Looking at an early Monet, María comments that in her view, "any artist too dependent on either seeking or presenting new and astonishing experiences will cease to be effective once he or she succeeds in ... apportioning that sense of discovery." Gainza's own artistic tactic, it seems, is to keep her narrator's sense of discovery alive throughout the novel. With each chapter, María finds a new artist to love, and, in doing so, accesses a new part of herself. It's a pleasure to watch her do both.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, D.C.