“And to begin again it was the most repeated task in the world. In fact, only there was the Repetition: in the beginning”, say the narrator of Un Episodio en la Vida del Pintor Viajero (An episode in the life of the traveling painter) of César Aira.
The novel assumes the form of a biography supposedly based on the correspondence that Johan Moritz Rugendas himself, his protagonist, wrote the experience of his first visit to the Argentine pampas.
The novel not only has a historical character as the protagonist of the story but also incorporates a whole series of biographical references that are specific (at least that’s what his green biographers say). But, also, the narrator insists again and again in affirming the truthfulness of the narrative appealing even a probative material that would certify what happened: “This final part of the episode was even more inexplicable than the rest. But we cannot doubt its reality because they were documented in the artist’s later epistolary ”.
Ignoring the recommendations of his teacher Alexander von Humboldt, for whom the Pampas landscape did not contain anything really exceptional worthy of being portrayed, in 1837 Rugendas left Chile accompanied by another young German painter, Robert Krause, with a purpose in mind: “The goal of his long journey, which covered all his youth, was Argentina, the mysterious emptiness that was at the equidistant point of the horizons over the vast plains. Only there, he thought, could he find the reverse of his art”. And, indeed, in the unlimited extension of the pampa, Rugendas will find “the reverse of his art.”
In the light of the glorious evening of January 20, they contemplated the set of silences and air. A collection of mule the size of ants was stamped on a cornice path, with movement of stars. A human and commercial intelligence guided them. Everything was human; the wildest nature was soaked with sociability, and the drawings they had made, insofar as they had had some value, were their documentation. The orographic infinity was the laboratory of shapes and colors. (Aira)
The detailed look proposed by the novel recovers the set of tools that tradition used not only for the preservation of stories but for “reinventing, with the spontaneous innocence of the action, what would have happened in the past.” Stolen symbolic forms now serve, from this new location, to capture a unique and fortuitous episode, stripped of all the fatities and political duties that once constricted literature. Fiction is now back on that journey through the pampas for the pleasure of adventure.
As the letters have been preserved, their biographers have had in them material to document, and although none tried, they could have perfectly rebuilt their traveling life day by day, almost hour by hour, without losing any movement of their spirit, none reaction, no scruple. Rugendas’s epistolary treasure reveals a life without secrets, and yet mysterious. (Aira)