I genuinely love the World Cup. And yet every four years I’m reminded why I haven’t picked an English Premier League team to support, why in the end I’m glad it’s over, why I have no trouble understanding some of the more salient arguments put forth by the trolls. It has nothing to do with the game itself, with the low scoring or the simplicity, but rather with the game’s on-the-field stewards: the referees. I’m sure I’ll get plenty of counter arguments suggesting that NFL and NBA refs alter games just as much as soccer refs do (looking at you, 2007 NBA Finals refs who gave the title to Wade and the Heat), but I hate that soccer officials have so much control over the outcomes of the matches. They call offsides and disallow goals. They call penalties in the box that result in PK goals that are practically foregone conclusions. They issues red cards and handicap teams. Or they miss biting incidents (there were teeth marks!) that should have, at the very least, resulted in a red card that might have given Italy the advantage it needed. Maybe I’m biased on that one.
I concede that most of the time these calls are accurate. But sometimes they aren’t, and it gets ugly. Really ugly and frustrating. Instead of the athleticism and strategy and sheer drama of the players and coaches and the action itself being front and center stage, these bad and/or pivotal calls put too much attention on the refs, and entire matches end up hinging on their decisions, which is just awful. I want the referees to fade into the background, to do their (difficult and perennially unappreciated) jobs in anonymity. I don’t want to know what they look like, or have any reason to remember their names.
Which is a way of explaining why I’m ditching the straw man I originally planned on setting up here, namely the notion that this match would be a tough one for me to judge given my employment by the publisher of César Aira and, on the other hand, my slavish devotion to the work of Michel Houellebecq. I’m ditching it because that would force you all to focus on my situation, my context, my imposed narrative. And just like it’s wrong for refs to steal the spotlight from the players, I also think it’s wrong for reviewers to (try to) steal the spotlight from writers and their books. So I’m stepping aside as much as I can and letting the books speak for themselves. It’s a bit difficult because, like in sports, a few highlights in condensed format utterly fail to convey the context in which the highlights occurred, but it’s the best I can do without outright demanding that instead of reading the notes and short selections below, you stop what you’re doing, go find a copy of the books in your local store, and read them without stopping. Wait, that’s a great idea. Go!
Still here? Alright, let’s go straight to the highlights.
A book about, well, a 19th century landscape painter named Johann Moritz Rugendas. Rugendas was real, as was his trip to Argentina, but what Aira describes—Rugendas being struck by lightning in the Pampas—is completely fictional.
We have to begin with a description of Rugendas’s approach to the art of landscape painting:
The artistic geographer had to capture the “physiognomy” of the landscape . . . by picking out its characteristic “physiognomic” traits . . . The precise arrangement of physiognomic elements in the picture would speak volumes to the observer’s sensibility, conveying information not in the form of isolated features but features systematically interrelated so as to be intuitively grasped: climate, history, customs, economy, race, fauna, flora, rainfall, prevailing winds . . .
Got it? It turns out to be the underlying point of the entire book, that something as seemingly benign as a landscape portrait actually speaks volumes about the history of the world and civilization.
Later on in the quasi-defense of sending a German painter to South America to document what he sees in painting, we get a taste of Aira’s tendency towards quirky scene-setting:
Travel and painting were entwined like fibers in a rope. One by one, the dangers and difficulties of a route that was torturous and terrifying at the best of times were transformed and left behind. And it was truly terrifying: it was hard to believe that this was a route used virtually throughout the year by travelers, mule drivers and merchants. Anyone in their right mind would have regarded it as a means of suicide. Near the watershed, at an altitude of two thousand meters, amid peaks disappearing into the clouds, rather than a way of getting from point A to point B, the path seemed to have become quite simply a away of departing from all points at once. Jagged lines, impossible angles, trees growing downwards from ceilings of rock, sheer slopes plunging into mantles of snow under a scorching sun. And shafts of rain into little yellow clouds, agates enveloped in moss, pink hawthorn. The puma, the hare and snake made up a mountain aristocracy. The horses panted, began to stumble, and it was time to stop for a rest; the mules were perpetually grumpy.
Rugendas dwelling on the value of art as compared to the rigors of historical accuracy:
The purpose of storytelling could be better fulfilled by handing down, instead of a set of “tools,” which would enable mankind to reinvent what had happened in the past, with the innocent spontaneity of action. Humanity’s finest accomplishments, everything that deserved to happen again. And the tools would be stylistic. Accord to this theory, then, art was more useful than discourse.
Aira is also fond of mood juxtaposition. To wit: this sentence that appears just before the lengthy, detailed description of the lightning strike:
“At least it will cool off,” he said to himself, and those trivial words marked the end of a phase in his life; with them he formulated the last coherent thought of his youth.
And here he blatantly echoes the lightning strike when describing Rugendas’s condition. I’m not what you’d call a fan of this technique:
Rugendas, who was going through a particularly critical phase, had attacks of vertigo and cerebral short-circuiting all night; he could only withstand them by taking an excessive dose of morphine, and dawn found him sleepwalking, covered in sweat, his face a jig of lightning tics, his pupils shrunk to pinpoints as if her were at the center of the sun.
A dose of quirk combined with mood juxtaposition. This is top-notch Aira:
The morning was truly glorious, perfect for a raid.
Lastly, a prolonged analogy (for, yet again, the art of storytelling) that I think might represent the best passage in the book.
There is analogy that, although far from perfect, may shed some light on the process of reconstruction. Imagine a brilliant police detective summarizing his investigations for the husband of the victim, the widower. Thanks to his subtle deductions he has been able to “reconstruct” how the murder was committed; he does not know the identity of murderer, but he has managed to work out everything else with an almost magical precision, as if he had seen it happen. And his interlocutor, the widower, who is, in fact, the murderer, has to admit that the detective is a genius, because it really did happen exactly as he says; yet at the same time, although of course he actually saw it happen and is the only living eyewitness as well as the culprit, he cannot match what happened with what the policeman is telling him, not because there are errors, large or small, in the account, or details out of place, but because the match is inconceivable, there is such an abyss between one story and the other, or between a story and the lack of a story, between the lived experience and the reconstruction (even when the reconstruction has been executed to perfection) that widower simply cannot see a relation between them; which leads him to conclude that he is innocent, that he did not kill his wife.
Another book about a painter, the completely fictional Jed Martin. In act one of his career he photographs Michelin maps and then manipulates them dramatically, earning high praise. Several years later, in act two, he paints portraits of celebrities (see below). In an interesting plot element, Michel Houellebecq is a character in his own book; he is asked (and agrees) to write the catalog essay for Martin’s biggest show.
From part one, a description—with quotes—of the critical response of Jed’s very first vernissages. Satirically pretentious and hyperbolic? As if you had to ask:
From the very first lines, he likened the point of view of the map—or of the satellite image—to that of God. ‘With that profound tranquility of the great revolutionaries,’ he wrote, ‘the artist—a man of tender age—moves away, starting with the inaugural piece by which he makes us enter his world, from that naturalist and neo-pagan vision by which our contemporaries exhaust themselves in an attempt to retrieve the image of the Absent One. Not without gallant audacity, he adopts the point of view of a god co-participating, alongside man, in the (re)construction of the world.’
Followed soon thereafter by a potential reason for the works’ popularity, also equally dismissive of a vast swath of French culture:
The growing popularity, across all of France, of cookery classes, the recent appearance of local competitions rewarding new creations in charcuterie or cheese-making, the massive and inexorable spread of hiking . . . combined to bring about this new sociological fact: for the first time in France since Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the countryside had become trendy again . . . And the Michelin map, an utterly unnoticed utilitarian object, became in the space of those very weeks the privileged vehicle for initiation into what Libération was to shamelessly call the ‘magic of the terroir.’
Did you think this one was lacking in Houellebecq’s typical despair? Come on. Here you go:
Over the cheese course, Jed’s father got slightly animated and asked him about his projects. Unfortunately, this time it was Jed who risked spoiling the atmosphere, because since his last painting, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market, he no longer felt much about art. He was going nowhere. There was a sort of force that carried him for a year or two but was now dissipating, crumbling, but what was the point of saying all that to his father, who could do nothing about it. To tell the truth no one could; when faced with such a confession, people could only be slightly sad. They really don’t amount to much, anyway, human relationships.
Houellebecq, a few pages after materializing in his own novel, discussing his life in Shannon, Ireland with Jed. And it’s everything you expect in the best possible way:
“The sunsets are endless and magnificent, it’s like some kind of fucking opera, there are constantly new colors, new flashes of light. I once tried to stay here the whole spring and summer and thought I would die. Every evening, I was on the brink of suicide, with this night that never fell. Since then, at the beginning of April, I go to Thailand and stay there until the end of August. Day starts at six and ends at six, it’s simpler, equatorial and administrative. It’s unbearable hot but the air conditioning works eel and it’s the dead season for tourists. The brothels are empty but they’re still open and that suits me fine; the service remains excellent or very good.”
“Now I have the slight impression you’re playing your own role . . .”
After the overwhelmingly positive (i.e. lucrative) response to Jed’s vernissage featuring the portraits, with the essay by Houellebecq, a discussion between Jed and his gallerist that succinctly, subtly, and perfectly describes the current state of the art market.
“In your view,” Franz went on, “In your view, which painting should’ve got the best offer?”
Jed reflected for a moment. “Maybe Bill Gates and Steve Jobs,” he finally suggested.
“Exactly. It’s gone up to one and a half million euros. From an American broker, who apparently works for Jobs himself.”
“For a long time,” he continued, his voice tense, one the brink of exasperation, “For a long time, the art market has been dominated by the richest businessmen on the planet. And now, for the first time, as well as buying what is most avant-garde in the aesthetic domain, they have the opportunity to buy a painting that portrays themselves. I can’t tell you the number of proposals I’ve received, from businessmen or industrialists, who would like you to paint their portrait. We’ve returned to the time of the Ancien Régime court painting.”
Like all of Houellebecq’s novels, there is violence in The Map and the Territory. It arrives late in the book, but has an incredible impact on both the plot and tone. A description of the crime scene:
The head of the victim was intact, cut off cleanly and placed on one of the armchairs in front of the fireplace. A small pool of blood had formed on the dark green velvet. Facing him on the sofa, the head of a big black dog had also been cleanly cut off. The rest was a massacre, a senseless carnage of strips of flesh scattered across the floor. However, neither the head of the man nor that of the dog were frozen in an expression of horror, but rather one of incredulity and anger.
A passage I have to include because it left me (and, I assume, many others) exhausted and depressed. A rare instance when the context doesn’t matter:
Olga was nice, she was nice and loving, Olga loved him, he repeated to himself with a growing sadness as he also realized that nothing would ever happen between them again; life sometimes offers you a chance, he thought, but when you are too cowardly or too indecisive to seize it life takes the cards away; there is a moment for doing things and entering a possible happiness, and this moment lasts a few days, sometimes a few weeks or even a few months, but it only happens once and one time only, and if you want to return to it later it’s quite simply impossible. There’s no more place for enthusiasm, belief and faith, and there remains just gentle resignation, a sad and reciprocal pity, the useless but correct sensation that something could have happened, that you just simply showed yourself unworthy of this gift you had been offered. He made another coffee, which definitively dispelled the mists of sleep, then thought of leaving Olga a note. “We must think,” he wrote, before crossing that out and scribbling: “You deserve better than me.” He crossed out that sentence again, and wrote, “My father is dying,” then realized that he’d never mentioned his father to Olga, and scrunched up the paper before throwing it in the bin.
And I’ll end with this, which I think represents as much of an artist’s statement as Houellebecq is ever likely to give. Bear in mind that this is a man who loves Balzac and Dickens and Tolstoy:
The question of beauty is secondary in painting: the great painters of the past were considered such when they had developed a world view that was both coherent and innovative, which means that they always painted in the same way, using the same methods and operating procedures to transform the objects of the world into pictorial ones, in a matter that was specific to them and had never been used before.
My analysis, comparing the two novels, side by side? It seems to me that in this particularly novel, Aira is writing about writing by writing about another art form, painting. He takes a good look at a specific kind of painting, at one specific painter, and at one specific incident in his life in order to spell out his extended metaphor and, ideally, see if anything else can be gleaned from the material. It’s a haphazard approach (he famously writes without aims, and doesn’t edit), and one that can be fun and occasionally transcendently beautiful, but I’m afraid it feels like what it is: narrow in scope.
Houellebecq, on the other hand, takes on big, fundamental questions about life and happiness and our fundamental need for companionship, empathy, and simple understanding. He explores the primal urge to create, and the (often horrific) affects of modern capitalism on the creators and their creations. He doesn’t peddle in metaphors; he strips events down to reveal their piercing emotional power, and, in the process, leaves the reader in that curious state of mind that the best works of art enable: the sneaking suspicion that although it seems like you’ve learned something new about humanity and yourself, you’ve also been reminded that you’ll never truly understand the world, but that asking the questions is nonetheless essential.
Final score, no contest: France 4 – Argentina 1.
Tom Roberge works at New Directions and loves Arjen Robben.
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