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The thought experiment known as the ‘Ship of Theseus’ has its first appearance, in nautical guise, in the writings of the Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch. In his Life of the mythical hero, Plutarch describes how Theseus’ ship was preserved by the Athenian people: as each plank decayed, a new one was put in to replace it, and so on until no part of the boat was original timber. The question Plutarch asks is whether the ship, eventually comprised wholly of replacement parts never seen or sailed by the man himself, is then still ‘the ship of Theseus.’ Later on, Thomas Hobbes wondered what would happen if a second boat were constructed from the cast-off planks of the original. Which one, if either, would be the ‘real’ ship of Theseus?
Plutarch’s tale is intended to provoke questions about where exactly the identity of a thing lies; in what it consists. We know, for instance, that most of our cells are constantly dying and being replaced by new ones, and that memories are unreliable and subject to change. So too are our personalities, friendships, environments. What makes us stay us across our lives? These metaphysical questions have more immediate relevance in the worlds of art and manufacturing, where the authenticity of an object is closely tied to its value. A ‘real’ Rembrandt is worth more than a fake, and so knowing how to tell the one from the other is a valuable skill. But despite being essential to how we think about art, this fact is hard to explain without relying on murky assumptions, either about creative genius or the infallible and invisible hand of the art market.
Ave Barrera’s The Forgery, published this summer in a translation by Ellen Jones and Robin Myers, has such contested questions at its heart. Set in the Guadalajara region of Mexico toward the end of the twentieth century, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, José Federico Burgos, introduces himself as a “painter,” but his primary trade is in producing copies of Renaissance paintings – “and the occasional forgery.” What’s the difference? A copy becomes a forgery, maybe, when a dishonest attempt is made to pass it off as the original. But this attempt changes nothing about the painting itself, nothing about its composition or aesthetic value: the status and identity of an artwork seems to lie outside itself, in how it is perceived. When we meet him, José is down on his luck.(Although you get the impression that this state is something of a natural habitat: a blend of pride and self-pity locates José in a tradition of picaresque anti-heroes, prone eternally to just about get away with it). On the verge of eviction by his kindly landlady Doña Gertrudis and her rather less kindly nephew Panchito, he takes on a new job, offered by a mysterious antiquarian called Horacio Romero. Horacio is spoilt, oleaginous, charismatic, and fabulously wealthy. He lives with his shut-in mother and their servants in a spectacular house designed by the (historical) architect Luis Barragán; but the house is mostly a kind of “fortress” built to protect the vast collection of art and antiques amassed by Horacio and his father, the intriguingly named Socrates. The centrepiece of their collection is a painting by the (also historical) painter Jan Gossaert, known as Mabuse. This painting, referred to only as “La Morisca” (“the Moor”), is kept in an enclosed “chapel” forming the dark heart of the house, and of the novel. José’s job is to forge La Morisca, so that Horacio can swindle its rightful heirs. Forced by desperate circumstances and irrepressible curiosity to take on the job, José moves in with Horacio, and the novel unfolds in a series of episodes, alternately hilarious and hallucinatory, and frequently the two together – partly due to Horacio’s predilection for absinthe, and partly to the novel’s blurring of the boundaries between fantastical and real, implausible and all-too-likely. Comparing his creation to the original, José can’t tell if the forged Morisca is “so similar as to look different, or so different as to end up being the same.” Barrera’s novel, too, moves toward the point at which the surreal doubles back on realism, or where that which is least like “real life” becomes by that fact reminiscent of our own experience. Only false teeth can be realistic: the closer artifice gets toward pure unreality, the more it rings true to the pictures we paint in our minds.
For this reason, the novel is interested in how the relationship between art and life isn’t so much one of imitation – in either direction – but rather of mutual framing and reframing. José describes his ability to “see the world with a painter’s gaze,” but then admits that in fact this gaze is the only way he can make sense of reality. The painting José scrubs out in order to use its canvas and frame for the fake Mabuse is even older, depicting the world “as humans used to see it, without television, without abstractionism, without the Renaissance.” Art doesn’t just provide discrete instances of ways of seeing the world, alternative encounters with it into which we can enter while looking at a painting or TV show. Rather, it actually changes the terms of the relationship between people and the world. The history of art is the history of perception. The forger is then an extra-historical figure, who, in attempting to see the world in a way no longer possible, slips from time’s net, in so doing existing, like José, in border territories and secret rooms, the shadowy underworlds and street corners of the city. I claimed earlier that José’s charming self-destructiveness represents a continuation of the picaresque tradition, a genre originating in Renaissance Spain. (The first novel recognised as belonging to the mode was published in 1554 in the city of Burgos, from which José takes his surname. This could be a coincidence, but it’s a neat one.) The Forgery also tunes into another genre, one predominant in Latin American literary history: that of magical realism. In twentieth-century magical realism, as practiced by the Mexican writer Juan Rulfo and his Colombian follower Gabriel García Márquez, fantastical elements are introduced, without fanfare, into a world seemingly recognisable as our own – seemingly ‘realistic.’ Because magical realism blends historical reality with supernatural incident while treating the latter as par for the course, it’s a mode which works to undermine the easy distinction between real and false. In The Forgery – a novel about a false recreation of an imaginary painting by a real artist – dream, fantasy, and reality blend and blur like José’s pigments. Several scenes seem inexplicable in terms of the realist mode; but even the form of explanation provided by committing to an aesthetic of the surreal is withheld. Like the ship of Theseus, the point is not to conclude definitively what’s real and what isn’t, but to return us to the dubious foundations of such categories, making their deep contingency apparent.
Perhaps because of its investment in the ways by which art makes and remakes the world itself, Barrera’s novel is often at its most alive when thinking about mediation and aesthetic experience. Descriptions of food – Horacio’s servant Tona, a muxe or member of Zapotec culture’s “third gender,” is an extraordinary cook – are vivid to the point of illusiveness, like cookbook photographs; accounts of José’s various painterly techniques, involving goats’ bladders and rare oils, are meticulous and evocative. Sometimes Barrera’s comprehensive research can get in the way, or want too much to declare itself: in certain passages the delight in method seems to be that of the author rather than her narrator. Similarly, aspects of the novel’s structure – both parts begin with a present-tense prologue, before the text jumps back in time to tell us how we got there – come to appear almost unnecessarily deliberate. To me the story is gripping enough to stand up without narratological scaffolds, while the form of the flashback at times runs up against the picaresque mode’s essentially episodic nature: not knowing where you are is part of the genre’s delight.
Yet overall the novel transcends these local quibbles. The Forgery exists somewhere between faithful extension and wry pastiche of the various genres and traditions to which it pays homage, and it’s in this space of undecidability between real and fake, intelligible and elusive – this is José’s habitat, too, neither a conventional artist nor a crook for hire – that Barrera creates a world both tangible and ineffable, at once as compelling and as evasive as a mirage, or a work of art. Its cryptic final line hints at the possibility of continuation to José’s story. I hope, if only on this occasion, that what we see turns out to be what we get.
by Ave Barrera
Translated from the Spanish by Ellen Jones and Robin Myers
Charco Press, 120 pages
Ben Philipps lives in London. He writes primarily on modern and contemporary literature, art, and philosophy. Some areas of special interest are pragmatism, Theodor Adorno, and ice cream.