Translated from Spanish by Nick Caistor
(New York City, NY: New Vessel Press, 2013)
The Missing Year, the first novel by Argentinian writer Pedro Mairal to be translated (excellently, by Nick Caistor) into English, is a slim 118 pages, beautifully crafted, and dense with often-hallucinatory imagery: the visions of a now dead painter/prophet as seen through the eyes of his grieving son, the narrator. “I saw one of those skies that Salvatierra so loved to paint,” the narrator says. “One of those deep, shifting, powerful skies. He sometimes painted scattered clouds growing smaller toward the horizon, which gave the sky its true dimension. He could create vast aerial spaces that left you giddy, as if you might plunge headfirst into the canvas.” Plunging headfirst is an apt way to describe the feeling of disappearing inside this deceptively simple narrative, where the dead swim and the living glide through thin air.
Though at first glance The Missing Year may appear to be a detective story of sorts—a quest to bring hidden family secrets to light—the plot itself feels like a red herring. The narrator’s father, Salvatierra—a painter who lost the use of his voice in a childhood horseback riding accident—dies. The narrator and his brother Luis, both of whom are well into a somewhat paunchy middle age, set out, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to find people who will bring Salvatierra’s paintings to the wider audience they deserve. A painted scroll representing a year of Salvatierra’s life turns out to be missing—an unexplained gap that becomes the locus of the brothers’ quest—and in the course of their inquiries, certain well-buried revelations about Salvatierra’s past do, in fact, come to light. The book, however, is up to something other than just digging up ordinary garden-variety dirt. Its real thrust has more to do with inducing a kind of amniotic vertigo, a liquid disorientation similar to the washing machine effect of getting knocked head to heel by a sudden vicious wave.
The fishermen of Salvatierra’s youth, for instance, are transformed into “ragged saints who are the lords of the fish swimming high in the air among the boards, pans, bags, and ladles hanging from the branches so they won’t be swept away by the river. As if they could all swim in the air just as they did in the water: men, fish, and things.” Though the two brothers plod forward like determined bureaucrats to tie up their father’s sundry loose ends, the mute Salvatierra’s vision of the human experience as treacherous, beautiful, and upside down spills into every description, every action, and prevails as the book’s secret heart.
“What,” asks the narrator,” was this interlacing of lives, people, animals, days, nights, catastrophes?” Catastrophe is a key word. The images exist outside the parameters of human control. Mutable and malleable, ethereal yet often crowded with menace, they blur boundaries, are a force of nature, act as a stand-in for the very fabric of time. Salvatierra’s paintings are at once love poems to life and deafeningly silent screams against its random injustices; the slow march to the ultimate unveiling of Salvatierra’s somewhat banal human indiscretions seems of little consequence compared to the roiling power of his all-pervasive scrolls.
While the brothers quest for the missing painting (the narrator more enthusiastically than the stodgy Luis) we learn that their sister and Salvatierra’s daughter, Estela, drowned at the age of twelve while swimming with friends. Further mention of Estela is sporadic and brief (in Salvatierra’s paintings after the accident, she looks “still alive, swimming with her eyes closed, drifting along with the current”) but her presence and the horror of her premature death (along with the terrible surprise of Salvatierra’s life changing childhood accident) can be felt throughout The Missing Year’s imagistic prose.
This is where everything begins to be flattened by the gusting wind of time. People are suddenly horizontal, swept along by the invisible current. The tree branches flail about, the animals, rain, everything slants to one side, unable to resist. Further on still, they start to appear upside down, to turn tail, until at a moment of complete loss of balance when I think my father must have been close to going mad, the universe tips over completely, the landscape does a somersault, the sky is at the bottom and the land at the top, as though my father were once again seeing the world with the fear of dangling from the stirrup of a horse galloping out of control among the trees.
Salvatierra is himself discomfited by what he creates, “…perhaps slightly embarrassed at the immensity of his work, its outsize dimensions, how grotesquely gigantic it was: almost more like a hoarding vice or obsession than a finished work of art.” Whatever this is that Salvatierra creates, it isn’t art. Or is it more than art? Salvatierra the man falters and dies, and his paintings gallop onward.
In the end Salvatierra’s secrets are exposed and harmlessly recede, and his work is unfurled before an astounded public eye, miraculous. A circle is completed. But by the end of the book Salvatierra seems an addendum to his great work; all that remains of the man is his mute beseeching. Look! his paintings seem to say. This is time. The texture of it. Its color and variety. See how beautiful? Time is passing. You are inside of it. And, look! When you are gone, this is how time will continue without you. The paintings (and the narrative) leave us with the sense that anything can happen in this upside down life, this absurd, ever-shifting spectacle in which a voice can be stolen by a galloping horse and a daughter is permitted to drown. “Finding the missing scroll was something I needed to do so that my father’s work would not be infinite,” the narrator says. But just as time is infinite, so are Salvatierra’s paintings, which contain an unknowable supply of details that seem, uncannily, to multiply and shift, and which flow ever forward in an unbroken stream. The resolution The Missing Year offers, the circle it closes, represents a paradox: time is infinite, yes, but one day, for all of us, it will end. Or maybe—in its luminous descriptions, its steady insistence on the incomparable beauty that lives inside of each of life’s sometimes-terrible mysteries—The Missing Year is simply reminding us to stop and smell the roses.
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Jessie Vail Aufiery is the World Literature Editor of The Literary Review