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In 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in Paris. Two years later, an Italian carpenter tried to sell it in Florence, claiming he’d stolen da Vinci’s masterpiece in order to return it to its rightful home. In Valfierno, Martín Caparrós’ literary re-imagining of these events, the “true” story is recounted by a mysterious Argentinean con man who claims to be the mastermind behind the crime.

The Marqúes Eduardo de Valfierno wants the world to know that he—a man raised in fatherless poverty in the slums of a small Argentinean town—pulled off the crime of the century. In his younger years, Valfierno took many names, and shed them just as easily, each time coming closer to the man he wished to be: cultivated, wealthy, and a connoisseur of art. Only by becoming this man could he con six rich patrons into paying a fortune for the chance of owning the Mona Lisa itself—when, in truth, they’d be receiving six copies, forged perfectly by a brilliant cohort. During the confession, Valfierno argues issues of truth and identity: is a flawless copy any less valuable than the original? More importantly, which was the greater artistic endeavor—the theft of the Mona Lisa, the brilliance of the man who made the forgeries, or the long and hard-won creation of the Marqúes de Valfierno himself?

Because the thematic issues of truth and identity are so deeply embedded in the text, Valfierno can be a challenge to follow, particularly in the first half of the book. It’s worth the effort: Martín Caparrós’ novel is a fresh look into a crime fading from memory, and a compelling portrait of a man’s search for meaning and identity.

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