My first book for #ReadIndies comes from an indie publisher who I’ve loved reading for many years, and an author who’s become a recent big favourite! The book is “Mona Lisa”, by Alexander Lernet-Holenia, translated by Ignat Avsey, and the publisher is Pushkin Press.

I came across ALH when I picked up a copy of his “I Was Jack Mortimer”, an energetic noir thriller also published by Pushkin; I read this back in 2015 and enjoyed it very much. Last year, I reconnected with him via his “Baron Bagge”, an atmospheric tale of impossible love, and was convinced he was an author for me. There’s not an awful amount of his work available in English, but I did manage to search out a copy of the slim “Mona Lisa” novella and decided this was a perfect way to kick off #ReadIndies.

“Mona Lisa”, not surprisingly, is set in early 16th century Italy, and follows the misadventures of a young nobleman by the name of Bougainville. Sent as a member of a party of nobles to claim tribute from Naples, he accidentally stumbles upon the workshop of Leonardo da Vinci and the WIP that will become the titular painting. Bougainville is immediately smitten with the woman in the picture, and bereft when he’s told that she died in the plague. He sets out on a quest to find out if this is true – but does the woman in the painting really exist and who, in truth, was she??

ALH’s story is a short one (88 pages) yet provides much food for thought while being very entertaining! “Mona Lisa” offers a surprisingly vivid pen portrait of the mercurial mind of Leonardo at work, and the scenes set in his studio are hilarious. Bougainville is a man obsessed, refusing to accept anything the great artist tells him, covinced Mona Lisa is still alive, and prepared to go to any lengths to find her. This involves battles with locals, invading tombs and all manner of shenanigans; and the end result is frankly not a happy one.

It is certain that nothing, or almost nothing, is ever accomplished to the end, and the little that has been may, in the last analysis, be a delusion.

Underlying the occasionally slapstick action is, of course, a more serious message. ALH explores our obsession not only with the ‘Mona Lisa’ painting and the effect it has on us; he also makes more general points about how paintings actually relate to their subjects, whether there is one true inspiration for a great work of art, and if all art is simply something seen through the eye of the artist rather than existing separately. That alone is fascinating enough, but there is also an element which seems to me to run through all of the author’s books I’ve now read, and that is of lost or impossible love.

In “Jack Mortimer…” the title character was in pursuit of a mysterious and beautiful woman; in “Baron Bagge” the love transcended the most impossible boundary; and here Bougainville is consumed by a passion for a woman who most likely doesn’t even exist. Certainly, this thread which runs through his work seems to be one which really preoccupied him, and I’ll be interested to see if it makes an appearance in the other translated work I have of his on the TBR, “Count Luna”.

So a great start for #ReadIndies month, with a slim but very affecting story from a publisher and an author I love. I enjoyed “Mona Lisa” a lot, and it’s a shame it seems to have slipped out of print (although second hand copies can be tracked down!) I don’t know if I’ll get to “Count Luna” this month (though it would be eligible for #ReadIndies as it’s published by New Directions); but I shall certainly try to get to it sooner rather than later! 😀