Retrato de Mäda Primavesi. Sebastián Politi. Buenos Aires: Modesto Rimba. 2019. 276 pages.
“My name is Mäda Primavesi and I am nine years old.
Says the girl in the painting.”
So begins Sebastián Politi’s novel Retrato de Mäda Primavesi [Portrait of Mäda Primavesi]. A truly disturbing opening: a painting is something to look at, but here, the order is inverted. The eyes of the nine-year-old girl, named Mäda Primavesi and captured on the canvas by Gustav Klimt, gaze at us intently from their hieratical position, with the shadow of a smile that both is and is not for us; it is because we stand before her, and it is not because she will keep smiling when we are no longer in her presence, and even when we are no longer in this world.
This gaze, accompanied by this smile, questions us like a modern-day Mona Lisa. It challenges us. Who am I? it asks us, not such that we elucidate her, but such that we elucidate ourselves, such that we see if we are capable of decoding her. She is the child-woman: a mixture of infantile innocence and ancient wisdom that doubts, ironically, from her own timelessness, that we will be able to answer.
“It was her. And at the same time, obviously, it wasn’t. And this could be said through countless meanings, whose countlessness gives you vertigo as soon as you start to consider it.”
This is the “problem”: the vertigo of meaning. Somehow, this is what Eco calls infinite semiosis; meanings that open in countless directions, like in the proverbial hall of mirrors, starting from this question: Who am I?
Retrato de Mäda Primavesi is one of those novels that—like all good novels—gives us something to think about, and makes us think. It leads us to run after the meanings that unfold shamelessly before us, challenging us, as we are challenged by the child-woman in the painting who is and is not Mäda Primavesi. We need solid foundations, a surface upon which to support ourselves with confidence. And Sebastián Politi gives us that. The tale that leads us by the hand is a story of love suspended in youth, in the times of the Argentine military dictatorship, that returns in the historical present—2010—to reclaim its place. The protagonist, Joaquín Andrade, a fifty-year-old doctor, well established with a profession, property, and a family, will unexpectedly come face to face with the Portrait in a New York museum. The same portrait that, in the days of his youth, had struck him in its resemblance to Celina Miravalles, the sixteen-year-old girl with whom he had fallen in love at seventeen.
And if the Mäda Primavesi of the painting is an enigma, Celina will be an enigma too, and dramatically so. Standing before a reproduction of the Klimt painting in question, Joaquín can think of nothing to do but to rebaptize the young woman as Maida. And so, the images in the hall of mirrors begin to multiply, always a little deformed in comparison to the original. Other feminine characters are added to Mäda and Maida: Mariana, Mariel, Magdalena. The fact that the repeated syllable should be “ma” is troubling, to say the least. And although Joaquín’s actual wife is named Laura, remaining outside this game of echoes, she too enters into its resonances: her sobs sometimes recall others, those of Joaquín’s mother. Perhaps the story of Joaquín and Laura also tells us the story—a story the text keeps silent—of Joaquín’s parents: more disturbing mirrors.
To whom does Mäda Primavesi speak from the painting? What is this voice?
This voice is, in the best sense of the word, pure literature, just as the gaze of the sphinx-girl is pure visual art: we find ourselves before a translation. Politi puts forth a literary problem: How to make this image gaze through words? The linguistic indication, the description of the gaze, would not have been the gaze itself. And so, Politi decides that, if the visual image gazes, the linguistic image will have a voice.
And what he does with this voice is hair-raising, because it speaks to us and does not speak to us: again, the is and is not that runs through the novel along distinct planes. As in the case of art, another of the threads that traverses the text: art is and is not. It speaks to us here and now in a present, but it also keeps talking beyond us in its timelessness.
“But I see them.
Says the girl in the painting.
And she tells the truth: the crowd’s ceaseless pacing before her gaze leads her to cross eyes with the thousands of observers who pause for a moment, attracted by her air of familiarity […].
But she also tells a lie, because enclosed in her golden frame and outlined against a background of flattened perspective, she dedicates almost all her time—if we may speak of time in the midst of this stillness—to conversing with her neighbors, Degas’s ballerinas, or to interrupt the whispers of Renoir’s girls, to crack jokes with Modigliani’s model […] or, when the unfathomable rears its head, to listen to the staunch silence that flows from the Egyptian rooms […].
And sometimes, just sometimes, the girl in the painting is truly attracted by some particularly insistent gaze. On certain occasions, so few as to be counted on one’s hands, Mäda Primavesi, age nine, momentarily pauses her inevitable isolation from the present and turns her head, only to then return her eyes to their place in the oil paint and stare, with a frozen curiosity, at the observer whose gaze pierces her own, in search of some answer inside.
“I look at him, says the girl in the painting.
And this time she tells the truth.
But a useless truth. Because she is not the one they are looking at.”
In these lines, which come from the beginning of the novel, on page twelve, the entire enigma of the gaze and the voice of Mäda Primavesi is encoded.
In sum, this is a novel about identity that does not provide, nor seek to provide, answers. Rather, chillingly, it offers questions: a spiral of questions whose answer lies in the inaccessible depths of eyes that look beyond us to the only place possible and impossible at once: art.
It is up to us as readers to take part in the echoes of Retrato de Mäda Primavesi and enjoy the words with which Sebastián Politi brings her closer to us.
Hugo R. Correa Luna
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Hugo R. Correa Luna is a writer and coordinator of writing workshops. He has published one verse collection, Andando poesía (1989), and the novels El enigma de Herbert Hjortsberg (2005), La pura realidad (2007), Los árboles (2017), and Once campanadas a medianoche (2019).
Arthur Dixon is Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He also works as a translator and interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma.