This spare historical novel draws on the brief life of Italian artist Rembrandt Bugatti, who specialized in sculptures of animals.
Bugatti (1884-1916) showed an early gift for sculpture, as his older brother, Ettore, revealed a passion for designing fast cars. But this fictional portrait by a fellow Italian (here translated into English for the first time) skips the formative years and presents glimpses of the mature artist in the last decade or so of his life, when he divided his time between Belgium and France. He first appears in the book in the autumn of 1915, chatting with his concierge in Paris about food shortages and the advance of the Germans. An aside on his wardrobe budget mentions Ettore and segues to an episode a few years earlier in which the brothers bury three car engines behind Ettore’s villa in German Alsace. Jump-cut back to Paris in 1915 and Rembrandt’s singular focus on animals and his attachment to the Paris and Antwerp zoos. This stark, suggestive novel is like the scenario for a filmed documentary, starting with the narrative’s opening photo of Rembrandt’s striking Hamadryas baboon. As the vignettes and time shifts continue, the theme of animals pervades, in other photos, in conversations, in references to naturalists, animal trainers, feral children, and a performing monkey. A scholar of animal intelligence is dubbed the Bear. A priest, concerned by “strange rumors,” cautions Rembrandt: “We have to reject the idea that in animals there is any perception of the divine.” A short time later, the artist is working with a rare human model on a crucifixion. Is there a connection to the priest? Or does this late project stem from his frequent melancholy or his coughing up blood or the awful wartime destruction at the Antwerp zoo? Or is it advance penance for his final act?
A moody, impressionistic, and strangely engaging work.