Two very different books that both revolve around a single painting. In The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra, that painting is a four-kilometer artwork painted over the course of Salvatierra’s lifetime which has been kept in a shed. In Bluebeard, that painting is a secret work that is kept hidden in a barn until the very end. Both painters, Juan Salvatierra and Rabo Karabekian, are outsider artists (although Karabekian is a museum guard and is in constant contact with the New York art scene). And while Salvatierra has casually tried to exhibit his work, Karabekian keeps his completely secret.
The Legacy of Bluebeard
So what was it that made these two books meld in my mind? For one, Bluebeard is one of those books that has stuck with me strongly in the decade since I read it. Not all parts of the book, in fact I’m sure to get a fact or two about the book wrong here, but the reveal of the painting. I think because I read the book when I was realizing that visual art was never going to be my forte and I was rediscovering how much I love writing. And then there’s the strength of the reveal. If you haven’t read the book yet, stop reading here and skip ahead to the next section.
Karabekian’s barn contains a large scale canvas that portrays what he saw on the day that World War II ended. The way Vonnegut unfurls that information, the perfect mix of visual information and letting my imagination fill it in. For years after I read the book, I’d scan gallery exhibits and find paintings that I thought were like Karabekian’s work. I was obsessed. Eventually I relegated the book to the annals of my brain, but something about the opening page of The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra where Salvatierra’s son, Miguel, is sitting in an exhibit in Europe watching a replica of his father’s painting slowly pass by brought the memories back.
The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra
None of that is to say that this book cannot stand on its own. If I had never read Bluebeard, I would have loved the opening of this book. I would have loved the spacious way that Mairal allows the reader to transition from chapter to chapter. Each chapter is so short and yet so complete as you follow the story of Miguel’s search for the one missing canvas that represents one year in his father’s life.
Mairal beautifully balances exposition about Juan Salvatierra’s life (he became mute as a child and this painting became one of the primary ways he expressed himself), the visual details of the painting, and Miguel’s search. Although I was relatively certain from the beginning that all the rolls of canvas would eventually be reunited, and I was not surprised at why that canvas had gone missing, I was so immersed in the family’s story that I couldn’t put the book down.
Some novellas achieve that perfect amount of engagement and openness that allow them to feel bigger and more complete than the longest saga. The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is one of those novellas. It is the story of the search for the one roll of canvas that’s missing after Salvatierra’s death. It’s the story of two sons unfurling and understanding their father’s life and lifework. And it’s the story of how everything we do in our lives really does add up to one whole. I hope you’ll love it as much as I did.
I have no way of knowing if Mairal ever read Bluebeard and it’s possible that the connection exists only in my mind, but when I say that The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra brought me back in mind to Bluebeard time and time again, I mean it as the highest compliment.
If this review made you want to read the book, pick up a copy of The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra from Powell’s Books. Your purchase keeps indie booksellers in business and I receive a commission.