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The miraculous paintings of Emilia Zúniga Guitiérrez alter a person, said the critic, the abstract and merciless brushstrokes for which she’s now known and celebrated change the viewer on a fundamental level, the critic added, the critic a houseguest spending the night on her way to Tegucigalpa for the world’s first exhibition of Emilia Zúñiga Gutiérrez’s paintings at the Museo Nacional de Honduras, severe and haunted paintings, opined the critic, paintings that take no prisoners, she elaborated, which offend as much as they anoint, which repel while at the same time, almost absurdly, invite viewers to search their souls, yes, she said, her paintings compel observers to take stock of themselves, paintings the world wasn’t ready for while she, Emilia Zúñiga Gutiérrez, was still alive, a glass of macuá sitting untouched before the critic as she crossed her long legs, legs I saw before the rest of her when she arrived hours earlier and I glimpsed her leaving the taxi with an elegance I’d seldom seen, before we walked downstairs, that is, my wife and I, to welcome the art critic, a world-renowned art critic, my wife had boasted, a critic whose opinions had changed the course of art criticism, she’d explained in a tone that, after years of marriage, a marriage that long ago felt ancient and remote, couldn’t be confused with anything but the utmost sobriety, a tone informing me I would be wearing my best suit and finest shoes, shoes long ago placed in a box and that I hadn’t worn in years, probably since our wedding, which I was expected without a word of complaint to have shined and slipped on as we welcomed the art critic simply because our home was the safest stop before the last leg of the art critic’s journey to Tegucigalpa and the Museo Nacional de Honduras, a two-hour drive through countryside rife with police and guerrillas, the police either loyal to themselves or to the cartels or some other nefarious entity, all sorts of warring factions whose loyalties changed like the weather, everything in a state of ceaseless conflict, and my wife and I knowing next to nothing about art or art criticism but there we sat across from the art critic who hadn’t yet taken a single sip of the macuá, the rim garnished with an orange and a cherry, who opened the book containing a comprehensive collection of Emilia Zúñiga Gutiérrez’s paintings, her most revered works as well as her most obscure, the art critic explained, a book she herself had edited that accompanied the exhibition itself, the first serious exhibition of her work in the world, chosen to take place in Tegucigalpa, the city Emilia’s paintings always harkened back to, works teeming and awash with Tegucigalpa, her native city, a city she left because of the violence and the poverty but that her paintings evoked or attempted to evoke, and one must ignore those later years in Paris and Berlin, said the art critic, cities where Gutiérrez became notorious for her drug use and violence, yes, violent outbursts and a recklessness bordering on delirium, violence that skirted the abyss, said a famous critic, a critic not as famous or well-known as me, said the art critic, but nevertheless a well-coined phrase, and all of us should focus instead on Gutiérrez’s shape-shifting, phantasmagorical paintings, said the art critic, paintings that all said Tegucigalpa, whispered or shouted Tegucigalpa without ever saying Tegucigalpa, paintings that forced the observer to sympathize and reflect on Emilia’s sorrowful youth, a youth submerged in the mud of hardship, lost in the miasma of time, yet captured and forever frozen in her works, in her paintings that murmured Tegucigalpa like an incantation without ever saying the word Tegucigalpa, and later, said the critic, when she committed herself to the asylum in Zürich where she painted the flames of God and the trilogy of murals, known later as the Zürich Triptych, which, after first laying eyes on the paintings I’d anointed them The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit because there was something sacred and sublime about those three works that made me weep, yes weep, because I wept the first time I looked at the three murals, they looked ready to take flight, paintings that sent meteors into my soul, that contained supernatural omens or distant planets, and working on the book, the stories I’d heard from the other patients I interviewed, lost souls whose limbs shook and eyes trembled, whose faces sought happiness and sanity but found, in this world at least, only abandonment, yes, they recalled the Spanish girl who’d stayed so briefly in the asylum, her stay like a dream, said one, her stay like a visit from a heavenly messenger, said another, all of them affectionately dubbing her the Spanish girl because why in the world would a Honduran be a patient in a mental hospital in Europe, Switzerland no less, and the Spanish girl never spoke a single syllable, they explained, only requested in small handwritten slips of paper paints and canvases with which she was graciously furnished because the asylum in Zürich had minimum security, in fact the patients had come voluntarily, that is of their own volition, and Emilia Zúñiga Gutiérrez was brought to Zürich by her artist friends after the episode in Cologne, the smashed windows and house fire and flipped car, all that hellish lunacy, those same friends claiming to see Emilia’s impending death fluttering before them like a prophecy, with wings and talons and unflinching brow, and they decided to send her to the hospital in Zürich, having no idea that sending Emilia to Zürich would result in the Zürich Triptych as well as other celebrated works, works hailed later for their influence on the younger generation, especially the Bergen School with their brash and experimental style that invoked turmoil and cataclysms and revolution, not social revolution but spiritual revolution, and I’d had enough with the art critic and her endless exhortations about Emilia Zúñiga Gutiérrez, enough with the paintings that she claimed whispered or shouted Tegucigalpa, like who gives a shit, I thought, like who really cares, I also thought, those paintings inside the book that looked like crime scenes or massacres or something painted by an obvious nutjob, which she undoubtedly was as her time in the hospital in Zürich testified, and my wife, the book across her lap, turned each page as in a trance and I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely interested or merely humoring the art critic because my wife’s interest in art went no further than the still lives she’d purchased once at the market, the first a painting of some purple figs and passion fruit, everything bruised and the color of night, the second a painting of what I’d always assumed was Lake Yojoa with the lush tree line and hazy mountains, their tops adrift in the low-hanging clouds, and perhaps that wasn’t a still life but a landscape, neither of us knowing the difference or, for that matter, caring, both paintings promptly hung and forgotten in the dull catalogue of days and all I wanted was to go upstairs and watch the match, Olimpia versus Choloma, the finals no less, and my neck felt tight in the collar of my suit because I wasn’t the same weight I’d been when we were married, not even close, because that’s marriage, I think, a burden, an invisible weight that accumulates with time, each year the waist widens, the heart gets heavier and I wake up now with new and obscure pains, pains I can’t quite pinpoint, I thought as I watched the art critic uncross her long legs, the ice in her macuá melted completely while she continued to talk with that absurd Spanish accent about the artist’s childhood, her upbringing in the slums of Tegucigalpa, a constant thrumming throughout her work, said the art critic, sometimes vague and sometimes accomplished with dogged precision, with a meticulousness that followed her into the asylum in Zürich where she painted what became known as the Zürich Triptych, fiery apocalyptic works, which I baptized at first as The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, said the art critic, mentioned in my introduction to the very book you now hold in your hands, and my wife made a small, hardly discernible gasp, like a hiccup, as if the book was hot to the touch, as if the paintings inside would steal her soul and I glimpsed at the clock above the art critic, saw that it was still the first half of the game and Jesus Christ, I thought, I prayed Olimpia had scored because Olimpia needed an early lead to win the game, without an early lead, I thought, they’re doomed because those asshole forwards Ojeda and Lopez, they couldn’t find the goal posts if they were stuck between their girlfriend’s legs, and meanwhile the art critic was talking about the final tragic years of the artist’s life, years teeming with her best work but eclipsed by dementia and pills, the whirlwind trips across Europe, the nightclubs in London and Madrid, endless episodes, countless lovers, the fistfights and jealous rages, the works painted while moving from lover to lover, trading murals for cash or drugs and her final, iconic death, her death like a staged performance, said the critic, performance art, she’d added, but I refuse to discuss Emilia’s death because too much attention has already been given to that tragedy, that farce, and I detest how the indignity of her death plunders the works themselves, and the critic finally lifted the glass and sipped the macuá which by then was watered down, but she nodded and then asked with the thinnest veneer of concern about her drive through the jungle, the trek from our house to Tegucigalpa and how dangerous was it and my wife continued looking at the book, gazing at those disastrous paintings that felt like sins even though I’m not religious and I told the art critic she’d be fine, that her driver knew the best routes and was familiar as well with the different gangs, deciding to use the word gangs over cartels as it sounded less threatening, sounded more like a club or a group of nondescript hoodlums whereas cartels sounded organized and riddled with intent, which indeed they were, but I didn’t tell the art critic this, didn’t talk about the neighbors disappeared, the pacts and ceasefires between guerillas and police that lasted a day, sometimes less, police who wouldn’t hesitate to shoot a person, anyone at all, or take a bribe, and I also didn’t mention that once she arrived in Tegucigalpa it wasn’t much better, that reaching Tegucigalpa only earned one a little anonymity among strangers and once more I looked at the clock and saw it was almost halftime and I swore to God Olimpia had better be up by at least two goals or we were fucked, I thought, and my wife closed the book and suggested the art critic leave before sunrise, around four in the morning, get a good night’s rest, she said, then depart, adding as well that she was happy the travel agent, a childhood friend, recommended the art critic stay with us on her way to the capital because we rarely had guests, said my wife, we rarely entertained, happy too that you chose to stay the night in our house or we wouldn’t have had the chance to meet or see those marvelous paintings and my wife was lying, I could tell, because the paintings inside the book disturbed my wife in some fundamental way, the look of dread that darkened her face like a menacing cloud, and later that night she told me the paintings inside the book were cursed, the exact word she used, cursed, even though cursed is not a word I ever remember my wife using and the day was a wash, a total loss, because not only did Olimpia lose to Choloma, by three goals no less, but the car with the art critic was ambushed the next day, not far from our house, a dirt road enclosed by jungle, and the driver was found, injured but alive, but no word from the art critic who my wife and I know with certainty is dead or disappeared, words interchangeable at this point, because she’ll never be found and the exhibition of Emilia Zúniga Guitiérrez was delayed out of respect for the art critic who dedicated years of her life to working on the book, over half of her career, but three days later, with no news, no body, the exhibition commenced with rave reviews in both the national and local newspapers, everyone suddenly ecstatic about the work of Emilia Zúniga Guitiérrez and a general consensus that no one in their lives had ever seen paintings like hers before. 

Mark Haber is the author of the story collection "Deathbed Conversions," translated into Spanish in a bilingual edition as "Melville’s Beard" by Editorial Argonáutica. His debut novel, "Reinhardt’s Garden" (Coffee House Press), was longlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award.

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