A Garden of Earthly Delights and Bodily Horrors

A Garden of Earthly Delights and Bodily Horrors: Ave Barrera’s The Forgery

by Georgina Fooks

It is refreshing to see a novel appear in translation that doesn’t neatly fit a foreign audience’s view of what Mexican literature “should” do.

Barrera, Ave. The Forgery, translated from the Spanish by Ellen Jones and Robin Myers. Charco Press, July 2022, 120 pages, £9.99. 978-1913867157

What’s a starving artist to do when faced with an impossible task? When we meet José Federico Burgos, he’s perched on a wall, ready to jump. Ave Barrera’s The Forgery opens in the middle of the action, offering a picaresque tale that pays homage to the greats of Mexican literature—from Juan Rulfo to Luis Barragán—and is translated with aplomb by Ellen Jones and Robin Myers.

José Federico Burgos is a talented painter who’s down on his luck. Living in Guadalajara, he becomes a copyist, turning in exquisite copies of famous paintings to get by. He is four months behind on his rent when the opportunity of a lifetime falls into his lap. All he has to do is to forge La Morisca, a painting by Jan Gossaert (also known as Jan Mabuse), for the mysteriously wealthy Horacio. The Forgery is named after this project; the original title in Spanish, Puertas demasiadas pequeñas (literally “doors that are too small”), alludes to José’s other dilemma. Not only does he have to forge a painting to scrape by, but the painting itself is ensconced in an ancient stone chapel on Horacio’s estate. To copy the painting, he’ll have to move in.

What follows is a playful novel whose enthralling complexities invite comparisons to Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. There is heaven and there is hell, all bound together within the same work of art. The Forgery is a dazzlingly sensory book, portraying a world of luxurious pleasures contrasted against the bodily horrors of poverty and violence. Barrera offers a remarkable commentary on life, literature, art, and the things we do to survive.

The novel begins with José living in quasi-poverty, and it is through the language of food that we understand the difficult position he has found himself in. With “nothing but a shrivelled lemon […] and a rusted tin of chipotle chillies” in the fridge (7), he dreams of the culinary riches of others: “chilaquiles with chicken, sincronizadas with salami and Gouda cheese, cappuccinos” (9). José’s imagination alone is enough to make anyone hungry.

So, when hungry José meets Horacio, the man who commissions the forgery, it is as if we are swept up in a whirlwind love affair—we are invited to dine on a feast for the senses. José lets himself “soak up the succulent smells of olive oil, meat, basil and onion”, is entranced by the “taste of those herbs, that butter, the soft meat melting on the plate” (22-3). The struggles of financial desperation become a happily forgotten memory when confronted with the luxuries of an upper-class palate. 

It is as if Barrera is seducing us herself with these sensuous, specific descriptions, and even though the novel has opened in medias res, with a taste of the dangers José will face as he prepares to jump off a high wall, Horacio’s invitation becomes irresistible. Despite the mounting sense of danger—why is there a fairy at the bottom of the absinthe glass?—the novel sweeps us along for the ride. Food is a quick indicator of wealth and social class, signalling a vast chasm of inequality between our protagonist and his apparent benefactor. These early sensory delights become warnings we should heed.

Barrera has a talent for visceral descriptions—José’s bruised body is “spaghetti-soft” (2)—and when setting the scene, her sharp eye for detail draws the reader in. Even minor details, like the hotplate José uses to heat both his Nescafé and the rabbit-skin glue needed for his canvases, paint a quick picture in the mind’s eye, indicating José’s hand-to-mouth existence.

The novel begins with an epigraph by Honoré de Balzac, the French master of social realism, and Barrera certainly shares Balzac’s ability to conjure up a scene like no other, with a talent for the detailed description inherent to the realist style. The epigraph itself alludes to the artistic problem central to The Forgery:

But since you are worth teaching, and able to understand, I will show you how little it would take to finish this piece.

Taken from Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece, it immediately evokes the idea of a worthy artist, in a tone not unlike the way Horacio speaks to José: flattering in its implicit dismissal of other, lesser talents, all the while insinuating that only a “little” is required to finish a work. At least in José’s case, this is an understatement of catastrophic proportions. The epigraph, furthermore, is not the only reference to Balzac’s work; Horacio quotes Balzac again when José is dazzled by Mabuse’s painting for the first time. “Young man, do not look too long at that painting, or you’ll sink into despair”, Horacio jokes (39)—for the work of a copyist-turned-forger is dependent on an intimate relationship to the art. 

What does it mean to produce a work of art? What is the relationship between forgery and original, or between art and wealth? As José embarks on the forgery, Barrera throws into relief a whole host of questions that problematise our understanding of art. José in many ways belongs to the long cultural and societal history of the starving artist, subject to the whims of the wealthy. When Horacio says at one point that “money debases art” (28), he likely means it: but only as a pretext for exploitation, for keeping José in a state of forced precarity. And while Horacio lavishes luxury on José at the beginning, he insists on enforcing the trope of the starving artist, for it is under conditions of deprivation that José works on the forgery, in a strange state that oscillates between delirium and hypnosis.

José’s forgery highlights the “work” at stake in a work of art. The technical mastery needed, the sense of inspiration to capture “the logic of the drapery” (146), the sheer amount of time spent at the easel with the canvas—when his forgery is praised, it is celebrated as a work of art in its own right. Barrera unsettles the hierarchy between original and forgery, drawing parallels with the debate over original and translation in contemporary discourse. The novel sides with the interpreter as a true artist, a “poet”, as Horacio calls him (154).

But coming from Horacio, the praise is twisted, marred by the conditions of production and exploitation. The novel has a clear sense of justice, but in real life, José remains at the mercy of the wealthy, praying that his talent might grant him salvation. By the end of the book, José’s art has become his life; the four walls of Horacio’s complex become the four sides of the frame. As he looks down on the complex from the top of its walls, planning his dangerous escape, we see Hieronymus Bosch again: 

I turned around and looked down at the house from above: the high walls, the fretwork stark against the sky. A labyrinth teeming with monsters would have been less terrifying. (166)

The world of art, of luxury, becomes a trap to those without wealth, without insurance; these are the dangers of a gilded cage.

What the novel does so well is to wrap up complex social commentary with an enthralling plot. Ellen Jones and Robin Myers keep pace with the narrative, translating the dialogue in particular with a keen ear so that the novel maintains a light humour, even as it reflects each character’s social status. They match Barrera’s talent for evocative imagery just as José matches La Morisca.

When reading a book in translation, it never hurts to step back and consider the book’s entry into a new literary ecosystem, and The Forgery’s existence in English is certainly a feat to be celebrated. Anglophone publishing trends tend to reflect an appetite for the stereotypical or exoticised when it comes to Mexican literature. While incredible novels drawing on gendered violence, for example, are rightfully applauded, it’s refreshing to see a novel appear in translation that doesn’t neatly fit a foreign audience’s view of what Mexican literature “should” do.

The Forgery is surprising, enthralling, inviting, darkly comic, lush, sensory—all while packing a socio-political punch. Ave Barrera’s debut in English is a striking one; we can only wait with eager anticipation to see what comes next.

Georgina Fooks is a writer and translator based in England. She is the Director of Outreach at Asymptote, and her writing and translations have been published in Asymptote, The Oxonian Review, and Viceversa Magazine. She is working towards a doctorate in Latin American literature at Oxford, looking at the multimodal poetry of Alejandra Pizarnik and Susana Thénon.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, November 1, 2022

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