Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza – review

This outstanding debut novel about a tour guide in Buenos Aires already seems like an important work

‘Being good with quotations means avoiding having to think for oneself,” observes the narrator of Optic Nerve, a seductively clever debut novel about an art historian who sees her life through the paintings and artists who enthral her.

It is, in itself, an excellent quotation, and it’s delivered with a wink. Maria Gainza, a 43-year-old Argentinian art writer, is extremely good with other people’s quotations – Stendhal and Carson McCullers, AS Byatt and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Reflecting on Mark Rothko’s final work before his suicide, she recalls TS Eliot: “The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind that creates.” But no one could accuse the author of avoiding thinking for herself. The narrative intrigue of Optic Nerve lies precisely in the way Gainza shares her mental processes. Part criticism, part autofiction, part meditation on the act of seeing, it has much in common with the recent novels of Rachel Cusk, Ben Lerner and Olivia Laing. But it’s a highly original, piercingly beautiful work, a book you’ll want to savour.

We first meet the narrator when she’s working as a tour guide, showing rich foreigners around the art galleries of Buenos Aires. She is a mother “hovering at the midpoint of life” whose dysfunctional family descends from a line of Argentinian aristocrats. She’s brittle (“I simply wasn’t cut out for life”), self-aware (she refers to herself as “a bourgeois art girl”), and when faced with a crisis, she runs straight for a museum or gallery.

Her identity only emerges in flashes and fragments. In between, we get miniature portraits of El Greco, Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Rousseau and, most memorably, Gustave Courbet, the 19th-century French painter. In front of one of his seascapes, she reflects: “Every time I look at it something inside me becomes compressed, a sensation between my chest and my throat, like a small bite being taken out of me.”

A novel about the experience of perception could easily have ended up wishy-washy, but Gainza keeps the book rooted in human experience: fear of pain, of disillusionment, of parenthood, of flying in a plane and dying. She describes her painters and their work with maturity and a wry wit; her prose, adroitly translated by Thomas Bunstead, is muscular and refreshingly free of international art speak.

Like the critic John Berger, to whom she has been compared, Gainza writes about how we are never looking at just one thing: we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves. At one point, the narrator literally sees herself in a work of art, startled to come across Augusto Schiavoni’s painting of a girl in a hat that looks just like her as a child: “I know, I know, this is about as far from hard‑nosed criticism as you can get,” she says, “but isn’t all artwork – or all decent art – a mirror? Might a great painting not even reformulate the question what is it about to what am I about?”

At times Gainza can be evasive – often frustratingly so. I found the passages where she addresses herself in the second person “you” a little trying. But there’s a hypnotic, oneiric quality to the way her accounts of artists’ lives merge with unsettling stories about her friends and family. A description of Alfred De Dreux’s painting of a dying deer segues into the tale of the narrator’s college friend who is killed in the most ridiculous of ways. The story of Rothko’s refusal to finish his murals for the Seagram Building in Manhattan merges with an account of her husband undergoing chemotherapy in a hospital where, each night, a prostitute visits the patients. “You write one thing in order to talk about something else,” she says. She recalls her flamboyant great-uncle Marion, who commissioned the Catalan artist Josep Maria Sert to redecorate his palace boudoir. He “needed to have these beautiful shocks in his life. He had to have them. Otherwise he’d wither and die.”

Optic Nerve is full of beautiful shocks. And they are often devastating. After she visits her doctor to examine a tremor in her eye, the narrator takes a final look at the Rothko poster in the waiting room and is reminded that she will die: “It gives me a feeling of my singularity: a clear sense of the brutal solitude of this slab of sweating flesh that is me.”

Gainza is a writer who feels immediately important. I felt like a door had been kicked open in my brain, which is just the kind of bracing experience you need at the start of the year. Her next novel, Black Light, has already been published in Spanish. I hope they hurry up with the translation.

Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza is published by Harvill Secker (£14.99). To order a copy for £13.19 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Johanna Thomas-Corr

The GuardianTramp

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