The original title of María Gainza’s second novel, Portrait of an Unknown Lady, fluently translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead, is La luz negra. “La luz negra” (the black light) refers to a type of flashlight used both by forensic specialists to detect traces of bodily fluids and by art authenticators “looking for…the final additions to any work.” The narrator, who is from Buenos Aires, first learns about the black light after she yields to family pressure to accept a job in the fine art valuations department of Ciudad Bank. She is twenty-five at the time, with a “personal credo…of a firm commitment to drifting along, to avoiding ties with anyone or anything.”

She is taken on as the assistant to the eminent Enriqueta Macedo, Argentina’s foremost expert in art authentication, “an avowed Luddite” according to whom the black light is “all one needed to delve into a painting’s core.” She will need no such help delving into the core of her new hire, who notes “something of the hospital scanner in the way her eyes looked me up and down.” It seems Enriqueta has recognized at once both a kindred spirit and a promising disciple.

The narrator, identified only in passing, by another character, as “Señorita M.,” is instantly smitten with her boss, an austere and formidably self-possessed woman in her seventies “whom old age suited.” The office—“the most distinguished valuations department in the country: the single, despotic authority on the price and authenticity of all paintings then being bought or sold across the land”—is also “a darkly governmental kind of place, soul-sapping in its grayness,” where “all the talk was of profit margins.” In this temple of mammon Enriqueta stands out, possessing “all the flair and grace otherwise so seemingly lacking.” Far from resenting her role as “personal slave,” the narrator describes attending to Enriqueta’s needs as “pure poetry” and to the woman herself (“Herself” is how Enriqueta is referred to at the office) as “a work of art in her own right.”

“She had an innate skill for deconstructing an image in her mind and putting it back together again, as a Swiss watchmaker would a clock.” She is also capable of speaking for hours about great works of art, with none of “the leaden solemnity of the academy” and as if she and the likes of Vasari and Pico della Mirandola were old pals. She is a good quipper. “It was seldom that Enriqueta came out with anything that was not both as pointed and as pleasingly formed as a hedgehog,” the narrator tells us. (My own favorite example: “It is best to be bursting for the toilet when viewing a painting; a sphincter on the edge makes for an alert mind.”)

The narrator is surprised when she realizes that her idol has chosen her not merely as someone to train but as a successor. A far bigger surprise is the revelation that, for forty years, the upright-seeming Enriqueta has been using her authority for a most nefarious purpose: granting certificates of authenticity to outright forgeries.

Over several secret meetings held in a sauna, Enriqueta feeds her enthralled assistant the story. It began one night in 1963, at the Hotel Switzerland, a rundown establishment with “a distinctly antique air, one of melancholy and adventure,” which had become the haunt of an international bohemian crowd. Its guests, “artists and inamorati to a one,” were “invariably intelligent and talented, and never destined for much.” In a moment of drunken inspiration, one of them—the real-life poet Máximo Simpson—is said to have renamed it the Hotel Melancholical. A friend from her days at the Argentinean Fine Arts Academy, now a leading member of the hotel’s clan, has invited Enriqueta to one of their parties. In the original text, the friend, whose skin is described as “an opaque black, as though the sun has absorbed all possible reflection,” is called La Negra Renée, with an obvious connection to the black light of the title, but in the American edition she is simply Renée.

Renée has decided to use the copying skills she acquired in art school to produce counterfeits. She has recently managed, with considerable ease, to pass off one forged painting as the work of Mariette Lydis—an actual Austrian-Argentinean artist known for her portraits of figures from high society—thus earning enough to pay a month’s rent for residents of the hotel. Renée can count on plenty of accomplices among her circle, but, as she explains to Enriqueta, what she could really use is someone on the inside. She persuades Enriqueta to get a job in the valuations office and be that person, willing and able to fake certificates of authentication for the fake art.

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It was a brilliant setup, and, according to Enriqueta, the Melancholical Forgers, Inc., “ran as regular and smooth as clockwork” for years: “Something fraternal bound them together, all making a living by cheating the rich.” While one woman burnishes her reputation as the country’s greatest art authenticator, the other thrives underground as its greatest forger.

Counterfeits of Lydis’s work turn out to be Renée’s specialty. “The demand was always there, her work held its value well,” and by this time the painter, born in 1887, a socially prestigious figure (she is the widow of an Italian count), has conveniently become something of a recluse: “There was even a rumor for a time that Lydis herself…was in charge of the operation, and that Renée was in fact her mouthpiece in the world.”

Rumor is an important word for our narrator, who issues an alert about reliability right from the start. We first meet her ensconced in a room at the city’s Hotel Étoile, where she intends “to turn the page, to start afresh,” by setting down the confessional story we are reading. She has checked in under an alias (made up of Gainza’s own first name and the surname Lydis); her true name might have been recognized from her days as an art critic, a profession she takes up after leaving the bank—and one that also happens to be part of Gainza’s curriculum vitae. “The stuff of my tale has slipped through my fingers,” she warns,

all that remains now is a little of the atmosphere; my techniques are those of the impressionist and not even the neo- kind…. I have only distrust for historians coercing the reader with the precision of facts…. “It was so,” they say…. I prefer for people to say, “Let us suppose it was so.”

Thus, the marked cards are on the table: the reader is to trust neither the tale nor the teller.

Having mentioned “a man who is said to have claimed that Renée painted the best Figaris he owned” (a reference to the Uruguayan artist Pedro Figari), the narrator adds: “This, like everything else about the Melancholicals, was and remains hearsay.” Such caveats are frequent. “At least so Enriqueta would later claim” is a typical qualification. For all she might be a “model of perfection,” the narrator remains wary of Herself, otherwise known as “the queen of making things up.” And after all, just how far can one trust an expert and impenitent con artist? On the other hand, about Enriqueta’s attitude toward the narrator we are told, “There has only ever been one woman who put her trust in me, which made me feel valued, and to people who do that, one owes everything.”

Enriqueta’s defense of her crookedness is, if not entirely convincing, eloquent. It’s not just the commissions she earns, or the satisfaction of stealing from the rich:

Rather, she said, she wanted to raise the bar for art in general: the true measure of a painting, she said, was how good it was, not the accuracy of the signature in the corner.

“Can a forgery not give as much pleasure as an original? Isn’t there a point when fakes become more authentic than originals? And anyway,” she added, “isn’t the real scandal the market itself?”

The narrator’s willingness to swallow all this, and to accept that her role as assistant now means being an accessory to a crime, has everything to do with her deepening devotion to Enriqueta, who after a year has become as much a mother to her as a mentor. Long before this moment, she had let Enriqueta know that “whether it be making coffee or carrying out an act of cold-blooded murder, she should do with me as she pleased.” But now she offers another reason: “I finally felt part of something, and the two facets of myself felt met—the one that yearned for protection and the other, always in need of adventure.”

Comes another surprise, this time a cruel one. When Enriqueta fails to show up to work one day, the narrator breaks into her apartment and finds her dead. Devastated by her loss, and feeling at the office like “a cow without a pasture,” the narrator resigns from her position in the valuation department and turns to writing art reviews for a newspaper. In spite of a lack of passion for the job, or even much interest in it, she finds her opinions being taken seriously enough to have “a certain amount of sway.” Still, she sees art criticism as hack work, offering this piquant assessment:

Attend third-rate exhibitions, drink cheap wine, smile, feign enthusiasm, promise to go to workshops that will never take place, say over and over, how wonderful, how interesting, all the usual art-world patter, go home, down a glass of water to dilute the wine, sit at computer, get supposedly engaged review down, the succession of hackneyed phrases, “the work is in dialogue with its environment”; “the installation interrogates the space-time continuum”; “the video poses radical questions of our everyday perception.” Language of the shyster, empty language, language just to occupy column inches.

In other words, yet another instance of faking it, another easy success at gulling the art gawkers.

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One day the narrator receives an unexpected visit from one of Enriqueta’s longtime collaborators, a former Russian admiral named Lozinski. It seems that several works by Mariette Lydis, who died in 1970, as well as a number of items said to have belonged to her, have come into his hands, and he needs Señorita M.’s help in arranging an auction. It’s a scam, of course (“One last roll of the dice, then, Lozinski?”), but with a virtuous motive. Proceeds from the auction will go to help an elderly woman, a translator and one of the old Hotel Melancholical gang, now confined to a retirement home. With a diligence and cunning that would have made Enriqueta proud, the narrator concocts the auction catalog, which includes such memorabilia as a collection of Baccarat paperweights and Amelia Earhart’s flying jacket.

After exhaustively researching her subject, the narrator uses the descriptions of the auction lots to sketch a poetically compressed and elliptical biography, providing details about, among other things, Lydis’s escape from the Nazis to Argentina, the reinvention of her artistic style to appeal to Buenos Aires patrons, and various notable friends, such as—besides Earhart—the writers Henry de Montherlant and Massimo Bontempelli, and Erica Marx, granddaughter of Karl.

Much fun to read, in particular for its sly blending of fact and fiction, the catalog recalls Gainza’s beguiling first novel, Optic Nerve, also translated by Bunstead (2019), in which the narrator, an Argentinean woman well educated in art history, illuminates significant moments from her own life through analyses of selected paintings and vignettes from the lives of renowned artists.

Though Operation Lydis is pulled off precisely as planned, the narrator subsequently lapses into a period of agitated depression. By the time she recovers, her erratic behavior has cost her her job at the paper. In her current mood, she doesn’t know whether to call this stroke of luck good or bad. (“Who, as the Chinese proverb says, can tell?”) But now she finds herself thinking more and more about Renée. According to Enriqueta, sometime in the Eighties the famous forger had inexplicably vanished, never to be heard from again.

The narrator decides to track down people who once knew Renée and pump them for what they might remember about her. “Dazzling, and gloomy, and strange” is how one man—a friend of one of Renée’s boyfriends, apparently—describes her. “There was something of Lilith about her—the one whose fire illuminates but can also burn you.” A woman who smoked Havanas and wore miniskirts when these things were taboo, she is said to have been “the first to bring marijuana into the country. Marijuana and condoms, which she and a friend sold at this chic clothes store over on Calle Montevideo.” Other stories recall Renée “playing Russian roulette during drinking sessions, being into black magic.”

In the first bits and pieces she is able to glean, the narrator finds “the inextricable mixture of poetry and truth of which all legends are made.” A new project takes shape: “I would go looking for Renée; I’d do whatever it took, go to the ends of the earth if necessary, and if she were still alive I would find her, would relieve her of her secrets, then turn them into a book.”

But the people who knew Renée are now all in their dotage. Memories are fallible, imaginations run wild. (Or could it really be true that the woman kept a small crocodile under her bed?) How could one person have embodied so many different and even contradictory selves? How could she have been “solitary but never alone”? If the accusations are true that “in the seventies, she informed on a lot of people in exchange for drugs” (this would have been during the Argentinean military dictatorship’s “dirty war” against political dissidents), why does there seem to be no proof of that? To describe her as having been a drifter is one thing, but a streetwalker?

The more people the narrator interviews, the more elusive Renée seems to become. Whatever appears to have been established about the woman (assuming she was a woman) is cast into doubt. At times it sounds as if she were a Zelig, at others as if she might not have existed at all. Still, however patchy, a portrait emerges, of a noir heroine: a smoldering, full-lipped, leggy vamp; a supremely independent woman of exceptional gifts, including those of a criminal mastermind.

Though her fascination with Renée remains undimmed, the narrator doesn’t know what to do with the material she has gathered. For all her research, she confesses:

I had, to be exact, less than nothing to show for myself. An image: this beautiful, enigmatic, talented woman, supposedly the country’s greatest counterfeiter, who one day disappeared without a trace.

She begins to suspect that “Renée’s reputation was such that people would associate her with any strange anecdote from the time.” A startling possibility presents itself:

What if Renée’s legend exceeded her talent? Perhaps she wasn’t the painter people claimed her to be…. Perhaps she had forged the occasional painting, but seen from the vantage of the present day, those one or two seemed like thousands.

Whatever the reality, in the end, if Renée is still alive—and not even this much can be ascertained—neither her whereabouts nor her secrets will be revealed.

Does the reader feel cheated? Not this one. Portrait is a detective story, but not the traditional kind whose mystery demands to be solved. (Think Bolaño rather than Chandler.) Of course not everyone will agree. I am reminded of a photograph, Woman Seen from the Back, by the nineteenth-century French photographer Onésipe Aguado de las Marismas. A woman’s head and shoulders. Beads encircle her neck, and her luxurious dark hair is styled in an elaborate and ornamented coiffure. The fabric that drapes her shoulders is arranged to leave the right one partly bare. Seen from the back: beautiful, glamorous. Years ago, lingering in the packed Metropolitan Museum gallery where this work appeared in an exhibition of photographic portraits, I overheard two kinds of people: those who wanted to know what the woman looked like from the front and those who did not.

Abandoning her search for Renée, the narrator muses, “I think that I came up with this quest as a way of going on talking with my old friend Enriqueta.” Meaning, of course, a way of keeping her alive. She also draws a connection between her quixotic pursuit and the German notion of Sehnsucht, a melancholy yearning for some unnameable fulfillment or joy. She has figured out that to close the case on Renée would be “to ruin something that I have been unable to define but nonetheless intuit as important.” Allowing Renée to remain in the realm of myth turns her into someone “who approximates an immortal being, an angel or a demon from the Paradise Lost illustrated by Blake.” (The comparison is a resonant one: on her first day in Enriqueta’s office, the narrator observes that the walls are hung with these Blake reproductions. “They’re all I believe in” is Enriqueta’s cryptic remark.)

And although the biography has not worked out, we still get a book. (One of those truths universally acknowledged: no matter what happens, there’ll always be a book.) The narrator comes to see that, for her, the reasons for writing have not been palliative but rather endoscopic: “One writes to plumb one’s own depths, to understand what’s inside.” In writing about the three mysterious ladies—Enriqueta, Lydis, Renée—each of whom might accurately be called unknown (or, even more accurately, unknowable), she has all along been writing as well about a fourth, for it is impossible to write about another person without also writing about oneself.

But if her confession is a mea culpa, it is hardly an apology. “I know I run the risk of going down as a sycophant,” she says, “and I am the first to admit I have had my hand slopping around in the mud. Believe me, mud is restorative and a tonic.” In considering the crime of counterfeiting, she recalls Oscar Wilde’s view of insincerity as not at all the “terrible thing” it is generally considered but “merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities.” “Perhaps all our sadness can be attributed to living trapped within ourselves,” she reflects. “Perhaps it’s only the counterfeiter who finds a way past this obstacle.”

This seems to me less persuasive than Enriqueta’s insistence that the real scandal of the art world is not the scourge of fraud but the market itself. For the countercultural Melancholicals, swindling is a way of sticking it to the establishment. The goal was never to enrich themselves but to help a community of artists survive in a world that both marginalizes and exploits them. In spite of decades working at the top of her profession—not to mention her illegal earnings—at her death Enriqueta’s home is described as having an “air of poverty,” and it was to provide funds for artists living in the hotel that she agreed to seek a job in the valuations department to begin with.

The ethical principle of Robin Hood has perennial appeal and might be particularly seductive in our own era of extreme and ever-worsening income inequality. (See the recent film The Duke, based on a true story, in which a working-class man steals a Goya from London’s National Gallery in hopes of ransoming it for help from the government for the nation’s indigent elderly.)

In 2017 the moral philosopher Peter Singer spoke out against the $450 million purchase (purportedly by a Saudi prince) of a painting by Leonardo, the largest sum ever paid for a work of art and one that, in Singer’s view, would have been far better spent alleviating human suffering. He could not resist pointing out that the subject of the painting, the Salvator Mundi, is He who told the rich man to sell his possessions and give to the poor. A keener irony, which no doubt would have delighted the characters in Portrait: although before the auction at Christie’s the picture—whose exact whereabouts today are unknown—was authenticated as a long-lost Leonardo, experts have doubted this, and in 2021 the Prado downgraded it to a work either attributed to or supervised by him.

Abhorrence for the profit-seeking of the people they work for is what bonds the narrator and Enriqueta from the start. “In order to establish a place for myself in this money-worshipping family, I assumed a rather questionable attitude,” the narrator recalls. “I made my contempt for money clear.” Not so questionable, it turns out, to her boss: “Only Enriqueta seemed to comprehend my moral asphyxia.” And once she has been let in on the forgers’ game:

It soon became clear that she and I were identical souls disguised under different identities. At root, we were two romantics, rebels to the bourgeoisie and to that whole way of seeing the world: the buying way.

In both Portrait and Optic Nerve, which have the feel of companion pieces, Gainza has much to say about the creative life, about art and ways of seeing, about perception and reality, authenticity and simulation, fidelity and betrayal. These are matters she takes seriously and about which she writes with exceptional acuity and precision. But the dominant spirit of each novel is one of playfulness and humor. The narrator of Optic Nerve pokes fun at herself by observing that “being good with quotations means avoiding having to think for oneself.” The narrator of Portrait is likewise good with them. Among the many writers cited are Máximo Simpson, Marcel Proust, Marina Tsvetaeva, Robert Frost, Bob Dylan, Mark Strand, and “the mystic Sufi poet” Hâjî Abdû El-Yezdî (Sir Richard Francis Burton).

The novel also contains so many engaging art-related anecdotes and digressions that the reader starts to anticipate them with pleasure. A late chapter is drolly presented “for anyone with the patience to read it all” and consists of excerpts from a 1966 criminal court case involving the sale of certain paintings suspected of being fakes. Like the Lydis auction catalog a clever mix of fiction and fact, this document has the ludic, labyrinthine feel of a Borges tale—appropriately enough, given that the accused, a collector named Federico Manual Vogelius (whose guilt or innocence is never firmly established), was an actual friend of Borges.

It can be more than a little disorienting at times, not knowing for sure what we are being told is true and what is false and what falls somewhere in between, but that is fitting in a novel so much concerned with misconception and duplicity. The narrator scoffs at the common delusion that facts are reality, “as though truth were the be-all and end-all and not just another well-told story.” As for memory, rather than seeing it, as some naively do, as an instrument “capable of capturing the past as precisely as the Hubble telescope’s photograph does the Pillars of Creation,” she deems it “little better than a fairground kaleidoscope.” And to those who might be dissatisfied at being left with only her bewildering, fragmented, and “pathetic” portrait of Renée, she offers this: “Characters with precisely wrought histories, linear psychologies, and coherent ways of behaving are one of literature’s great fallacies.”

“The bohemian life was one of agitation, violence, full of extremes,” the narrator’s research informs her. “Everything was writ large: arguments were heated, victories brutal, betrayals truly epic.” Reading about the Hotel Melancholical made me think of another legendary home of outlaws and rebel artists, Manhattan’s old Hotel Chelsea. Back in the day, painters who were living there could trade their canvases for rent. To hear people reminisce, the talk that went on amid the building’s tattered furnishings and peeling walls, or at its raucous Spanish bar, was the only talk that really mattered. Everyone smoked, everyone drank hard, everyone was into drugs. Among the many wild stories attached to the place was one about a tenant who kept a small alligator in his rooms. I don’t know how much of that world was real and how much was illusion. The only thing to be said for sure is that, like Renée, sometime in the Eighties it vanished.