Tamara Tenenbaum, winner of Argentina’s inaugural Premio Ficciones, reflects on María Gainza’s just-released Optic Nerve (tr. Thomas Bunstead, Catapult Books, 2019) in the context of the writer’s relationship to class and the legacy of the Argentine women writers who preceded her.
In 2015, a study put together by the consulting firm TNS Gallup found that eighty-eight percent of people in Argentina thought of themselves as being middle class. While only ten percent of those polled self-identified as lower class, it is remarkable that absolutely none of the respondents thought of themselves as part of the upper class. Regardless of the implications—or lack thereof—and limits of this kind of flashy statistic, this particular result might be telling of the complicated and uncomfortable relationship between Argentinian society and the concept of privilege, a conflict which writers have not escaped.
On the back cover of the first original edition of María Gainza’s Optic Nerve, curator and translator Ernesto Montequin wrote that the heroine of this book is “a woman who dares to say her name and that of her tribe: Argentina’s upper class.” “Dare” is a well-chosen verb: not many writers in the Argentinian tradition have been as explicit and prodigal as Gainza is in her English language debut when it comes to acknowledging their own privileged upbringing.
In the first chapter of Gainza’s elusive mix of memoir, novel, and art history essay, we encounter the protagonist-narrator—a very nonfictional version of Gainza herself—about to give a tour of a private art collection to a couple of American tourists. Torrential rain has left the protagonist completely unfit to meet not only her clients but also the elegant collector, who did not even understand why she had to go in the first place when the collector could have shown the paintings to the tourists herself; when the two women come face to face, they embark on a subtle competition to demonstrate whose knowledge of the art is greater, ending in the protagonist’s silent defeat. The scene is funny, especially the image of the protagonist leading the tour in a pair of white slippers the collector snidely gave her, but it also condenses the complex dynamics between Gainza’s protagonist and the social milieu in which she grew up, a theme that is developed throughout the rest of the book. In one sense, she is out of her element; in another, she is still there, trying to use that privilege—her education, her connections, her flawless English, which is a class signifier in Latin America—to, paradoxically, again, make a living. She wants to free herself from her social milieu, but that escape will always be incomplete.
These conflicts are also noticeable in Gainza’s writing: with a fine-tuned ear, you can hear a bit of sociolect in her beautiful, delicate, and personal literary style. And the world she has chosen for herself, the visual arts world, is—and has been for a long time—absolutely entangled with the life of the ruling class. Argentina is far from an exception in this matter: many public museums are located in what were originally the houses of powerful families. Gainza acknowledges this truth, and she makes use of it: two times in the book she goes back to the history of the Errázuriz Palace, which is now the National Museum of Decorative Arts. In a way, it seems as if she thinks of the characters who used to inhabit these mighty houses—dignified ambassadors, eccentric aristocrats, renowned sopranos turned wealthy wives—as museum pieces themselves, in both of the senses imbued in this expression: things of the past, but also works of art, worthy of display.
While Sara Gallardo seemed to think this golden past she barely knew had actually had its day . . . Gainza casts doubt on the entire metaphor.
It ought to be impossible to think of the way the conflict between the writer and her class origins works in Argentinian literature without thinking of Sara Gallardo, but because Gallardo languished in the shadows for decades—a situation that has slowly been changing in recent years—many avid readers might miss the comparison.
Gallardo was born in 1931 to a family very much like Gainza’s: she was the great-great-granddaughter of Bartolomé Mitre, one of Argentina’s first presidents and among its most important politicians. She worked as a journalist for most of her life and became well known for her fresh tone and elegant impertinence. She was very much conscious of the bubble in which she had grown up; you can read many allusions to that in her journalistic work or in interviews she gave. However, some of the most fascinating instances of her challenging the social expectations for a woman of her kind can be found in her fiction. Her first novel, Enero, published when she was only twenty-three, follows a sixteen-year-old girl called Nefer who works at a tambo (dairy farm) and gets pregnant after being raped. Rural fictions were a popular—if already tired—item in 1940s Argentina, but Gallardo turns this motif on its head by shifting the perspective from the wealthy landowners to the workers—and to a poor, ugly, and unremarkable girl.
Like Gainza’s protagonist in Optic Nerve, Nefer is an observer as much as or more than she is an actor; we know her for what she sees, and through her eyes the author can show this otherwise familiar world in a different light. Nefer, otherwise, is nothing like the protagonist we get to know in Optic Nerve, and probably nothing like the real Gallardo either. Her character is not especially charming: she is fearful and shy, and she has not an ounce of the confidence that a childhood of luxury often provides. Nevertheless, there is a painfully beautiful scene in Enero where Nefer goes to meet an old woman who could help her get an abortion—the treatment of this topic is incredibly prescient for 1958, considering abortion is still illegal in Argentina today—and tries to ride at a gallop so fast and hard that it could do the job itself. In this moment, the reader can feel fire in her guts; the kind that comes from need, not from comfort.
One of the most central pivotal chapters in Optic Nerve is called “The Enchantment of Ruins.” It stands out for its emotional stakes but also because it is here where one of the novel’s bigger themes is addressed at length: through the character of the protagonist’s mother, Gainza finds a chance to delve into Argentina’s aristocracy, its many miseries and identity conflicts. It opens like this: “You spent the first half of your life rich, the second poor.” The whole chapter is written in the second person, a resource Gainza will employ again later in her narrative but which we encounter here for the first time. While on a literal level the protagonist is speaking to herself and about herself—her “poverty” refers to the path she took as a grown-up, seeking distance from her family’s position: in a way, she might be speaking to a past version of herself, the rich girl she no longer is—this second-person form of address could also be read as speaking to her mother and to her whole social class.
Gainza shows the paradox of a class that prides itself on having built this country yet cannot wait to leave it behind.
Gallardo said in an interview that hers was the last generation of the upper class to have seen an Argentina where families like hers ruled the country alone; that “dream,” Gallardo said, ended before the dreamers noticed, when Gallardo was still a teenager. Gainza, born more than forty years after Gallardo, came to know Argentina’s aristocracy in a different time and spirit: a time of nostalgia, a yearning for a past half-real and half-imagined where their wealth was even greater and power was not shared. “The Enchantment of Ruins” speaks of this too: Gainza writes about a bizarre trend that became popular among European nobility on the verge of the Industrial Revolution, which consisted of the building of “fake ruins.” While Sara Gallardo seemed to think this golden past she barely knew had actually had its day (even if it wasn’t “golden” for everybody, or even for most), Gainza casts doubt on the entire metaphor.
Another image in this chapter captures something very specific about Argentina’s traditional families and their pathos during recent decades: the protagonist tells the story of a fire and how her mother ran away to an old palace that had been her grandmother’s home but which has housed the US Embassy since 1929. On one level, Gainza’s mother is running toward her childhood and this lost paradise; on another, she’s fleeing Argentina, leaving this doomed and ever-decaying country for the First World, where people like her actually belong. In the depiction of this mother, who gives history books as presents to her doorman (to make sure he learns “the right version” of Argentina’s history) and asks every week whether her granddaughter’s passport is in order, Gainza shows the paradox of a class that prides itself on having built this country yet cannot wait to leave it behind.
There is a voyeuristic quality to the look Gainza casts on the world into which she was born; I say voyeuristic because I don’t think she is trying for an exposé. Her gaze is political, but there is no moral indignation in her tone; there is, instead, a genuine curiosity, and a will to turn those memories she cannot erase into an aesthetic. In that, Gainza is very close to another Argentinian writer who, through a defamiliarized look, turned her evocation of a privileged childhood into a book as sweet as it is disturbing: Norah Lange, better known for many years as poet Oliverio Girondo’s wife and Borges’s protegée.
[Norah Lange] is turning her eye away from what the people in her social milieu—and especially the men—thought of as important and worthy of telling.
In Cuadernos de Infancia (“Childhood Notebooks,” yet to be translated into English), Lange uses her childhood evocations to create a fragmented narrative world that feels strange and almost surreal. Unlike most autobiographies written before her by men from a similar background (Cuadernos was published in 1937), Lange’s book excludes any mention of an illustrious lineage; there are barely any historical references, no famous surnames or institutions. In Cuadernos, Lange is not trying to position herself, as a writer, as the heir to a tradition, or to establish her place in Argentina’s history. It would be too much of a stretch to say that, in this omission, Lange is renouncing her class and inheritance; however, it is true that she is turning her eye away from what the people in her social milieu—and especially the men—thought of as important and worthy of telling, focusing instead on the apparently inconsequential domestic world to unearth there something dark, something unfamiliar. Instead of famous schools and intellectual initiations, Lange writes of the night one of her sisters, on the cusp of puberty, put her baby brother’s mouth to her breast to calm his crying; or the game another of her sisters used to play, which consisted of introducing a stick into a goat’s anus to make it defecate. This is not a childhood that’s preparing the writer to become the father of a nation, like Miguel Cané’s Juvenilia; Lange’s mission, as writer and critic Sylvia Molloy has pointed out, is eminently literary. Like Gainza, she is using what she has on hand to create imagery that is guided by class but that is at the same time absolutely personal.
Not all writers are aware of what they are doing when they’re writing, but it’s likely that Lange and Gainza were. This voyeuristic trend that Lange explores through the unnamed narrator in Cuadernos becomes explicit in her later novel, People in the Room, translated by Charlotte Whittle: in it, a young woman spies three women in the house across the street from her family’s home and begins to imagine secret lives for them.
Gainza, too, seems to be conscious of the way she is making use of the social universe of her birth; this becomes clear in the character of Uncle Marion, an eccentric relative who makes a few appearances throughout the book. Uncle Marion lived his life between two worlds, never daring to step completely out of his privilege but also never ceasing to feel uncomfortable in it either. At one point, another relative tells Gainza, Marion befriended a group of unprivileged men from the town near his country house; no one knows how he managed to be included, but he used to keep them entertained with crazy anecdotes of his travels and rich acquaintances. “He mesmerized them with tales from that time; to them it was like having a Martian land and getting to find out about life on other planets,” writes Gainza. It is impossible to think that Gainza did not realize this: that she is a true heir of her uncle Marion and that here she is, amusing the plebes among us with her stories from Mars.
 Amícola, José. “Cuerpo, clase y destino en Enero de Sara Gallardo,” in Bertúa, Paula and De Leone, Lucía (ed.), Escrito en el viento. Lecturas sobre Sara Gallardo. Buenos Aires: Editorial de la Facultad de Filosofía y Letras de la Universidad de Buenos Aires, 2013.
 Peicovich, Esteban. “Por qué me fui. Con Sara Gallardo en Barcelona,” in Los oficios, by Sara Gallardo and Lucía de Leone (ed.). Buenos Aires: Editorial Excursiones, 2015 (original date of the interview: 1979).
 Molloy, Sylvia. At Face Value: Autobiographical Writing in Spanish America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.