Translated by Ellen Jones and Robin Myers
There’s something that draws me to novels about art and artists like a magnet. As you might guess from the title, this novel concerns an art fraud. We begin at the end by meeting the narrator who is in a life-threatening position:
My name is José Federico Burgos. I’m a painter. I make copies of Renaissance paintings and the occasional forgery. I’m sitting on the edge of the highest wall on the property. I’m going to jump. I’m going to do it any second now.
What a dramatic opening! We’ll discover what happens to him later – whether he was contemplating suicide or trying to escape from something or someone. Meanwhile, we return to a few months before this event, when José was a struggling artist in Guadalajara, behind on his rent on the studio where he lives. The landlady’s nephew is getting quite threatening about the amount he owes. He needs to get some money, fast, but the one restoration he has is only just about ready – his client may not be able to pay straight away. Then he gets a call that will change everything, and he drops everything to hasten to the Señor Horacio’s hacienda.
‘I need you to forge a painting for me.’
He came right out with it, brazen-faced. An alarm bell went off at once in my mind and I felt apprehensive. I didn’t want to seem discourteous, though, so I kept listening.
‘There’s good money in it. If it turns out well I’ll pay you handsomely. The problem is, it’s a sixteenth-century panel. It’s hard to persuade someone to take it on. It’s too big.’
‘A sixteenth-centrury panel? Who by?’ I asked, with growing intrigue.
‘It’s a family relic. The museum value doesn’t interest me much, but as far as I know it’s attributed to Mabuse. Have you ever worked on a piece that old??
I shook my head slightly, perplexed. ‘And the copy… the forgery… what do you need it for?’
‘To pass for the original, of course.’ He smiled cynically.
Although he had a bad experience with a forgery job previously, José’s elbow is twisted, and when a couple of days later he returns home to find his truck has been towed and his belongings are on the pavement he has no choice. At Horacio’s, he is looked after by housekeepers Tona and the mute El Gordo; Horacio comes and goes. The outside world is totally unaware of this painting – its provenance is definitely dodgy, and Horacio keeps it firmly under lock and key. Therein lies the main problem, the painting he is to forge is so big, that a building was built around it in the garden He can only sketch in front of it and then transpose onto the vintage wooden panel provided for him in the studio. The work goes okay, but it is when José finally meets the other resident of the household that things start to go wrong – I won’t say more about the plot.
Although there is drama aplenty to come, The Forgery is also a playful novel, narrated with a sense of humour. I particularly enjoyed José’s encounters with the homeless but happy Socket, a street philosopher if ever there was one. There is some good description of the artist-copyist’s process, and Horacio is given to spouting at length about the history of art, causing José to bluff his own knowledge, which keeps things light, without needing too much overt technical detail. At novella length, the air of mystery is well-maintained, especially in the second half where we will find out more about the situation that José gets embroiled in.
I have only previously read a couple of Mexican novels, notably Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World which I rather loved. It’s great to see Charco Press expanding its range from Spanish-speaking countries in South America northwards into the centre, as contemporary Mexican literature is obviously going from strength to strength and it’s great to see it in translation. I enjoyed this novel a lot too.
Source: Review copy. Charco Press, flapped paperback, 174 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.
PS: For Women in Translation Month Charco has an offer of 20% off on their women authors until August 8th.