Pablo Neruda is brilliantly realized in this unusual mystery set during the volatility of the last months of the Allende revolution in Chile. The fict...morePablo Neruda is brilliantly realized in this unusual mystery set during the volatility of the last months of the Allende revolution in Chile. The fictional detective, Cayetano Brulé, is hired by the elderly but still charismatic poet to locate a doctor that Neruda once knew and who he believes might have a treatment for his terminal condition. As Brulé follows the thin leads that Neruda supplies, he realizes that there is more to the assignment than Neruda originally let on. Originally reluctant and eager to complete his job, Brulé (and the reader) gets swept up by the still-powerful charisma and magnetism of Neruda as he travels to dangerous locales such as Cuba and East Berlin. He must piece together clues from the eccentric Neruda's romantic reminiscences and philosophical musings to even uncover what the actual mystery is in the first place. In the end, he becomes as obsessed with Neruda's legacy and Neruda himself seems to be.
As a character, Brulé is often threatened to be overshadowed by the larger-than-life (yet on the brink of death) Neruda, but he ends up holding his own and serves as an excellent foil to the famous poet. I look forward to reading more of the series.(less)
**spoiler alert** There is a common genre or narrative trope that concerns the "innocent man" protagonist who is framed or otherwise cast into a situa...more**spoiler alert** There is a common genre or narrative trope that concerns the "innocent man" protagonist who is framed or otherwise cast into a situation where he cannot trust anyone and must save himself using unconventional means or only his wits. It's a useful mechanism for exploring the nature of innocence itself - how truly innocent are any of us, really, and how far can we go into the darkness when we are cut off from our support systems (law, family, friends)? Hitchcock dealt with this beautifully - Rear Window and North by Northwest, in particular, take great pains to eliminate every legitimate option available to the hero leaving him entirely on his own to defeat the criminals.
Most other authors/directors are far less masterful at achieving this. A lot of the time the underlying premises of these sorts of works fall apart under close scrutiny - it seems it is very hard to create a convincing set of circumstances wherein the troubled protagonist couldn't just save himself a whole of trouble by going to the authorities and explaining his predicament.
There are certainly many facets of Donna Tartt's remarkable novel The Goldfinch that could be explored in a review, but I was particularly taken by what I see to be the author's handling of these challenges of the "innocent man" narrative. What struck me most was the degree to which she systematically and completely removed every law-abiding option available to Theo for dealing with his purely accidental and innocent possession of the titular painting. The first third of the book is one steady series of authority figure after authority figure demonstrating that they are, in fact, absent, untrustworthy, or even threatening to Theo's freedom and safety.
In fact, Theo's (physical, emotional, social) isolation is so complete and total that I felt the novel almost slipped into parody at times (the desolate wasteland of the Las Vegas suburbs was particularly over-the-top). Then I encountered a passage in a late chapter of the book in which Horst, a German drug dealer and art fence, is describing the titular painting:
"I know the theory of The Goldfinch, I'm well familiar with it, people call it trompe l'oeil and indeed it can strike the eye that way from afar.... But Fabritius ... he's making a pun on the genre ... a masterly riposte to the whole idea of trompe l'oeil ... he takes the image apart very deliberately to show us how he painted it."
Horst concludes his explication with: "It's a joke, the Fabritius. It has a joke at its heart."
It was at that point that I began to suspect the there was a joke at the heart of The Goldfinch book as well as the painting - the joke being that Tartt is laying bare the conventions and techniques whereby this "innocent man" genre is constructed just as Fabritius' painting "falls apart into brushstrokes."
The joke is blatantly revealed following the denouement - Theo has hit rock bottom, Boris is probably dead, the painting is gone forever ... only to have Boris return in dramatic fashion and reveal that the entire situation has been resolved by placing a call to the authorities.
"You gave me the idea yourself," Boris says. "I don't think you knew how great it was! Genius! I wish I had thought of it myself. 'Call the art cops, call the art cops.'... No questions asked! Cash, free and clear -!"
With this paragraph, Tartt reveals what we (and Theo) should have known all along - just call the art cops and virtually everything that happens in the novel will be unnecessary.
Less an espionage thriller and more of a procurement procedural, Furst's latest in the "Night Soldiers" series is downhill even from "Mission to Paris...moreLess an espionage thriller and more of a procurement procedural, Furst's latest in the "Night Soldiers" series is downhill even from "Mission to Paris," which I felt was already a marked decline from his earlier novels.
In "Midnight in Europe" we focus on Cristián Ferrar, a Spanish lawyer living in Paris, who becomes involved in an effort to smuggle arms and ammunition to the republicans in his home country. There is very little tension as Ferrar rather openly pursues his aims, announcing his mission to virtually everyone he come into contact with. The only real tension occurs near the end in a marine encounter that feels tacked on.
The novel gets off to a good start with a sort of "cold open" involving a courier named Castillo who is questioned and ultimately executed by sinister Spanish Nationalists. It's only a few pages long, but it's a well-crafted set-piece that nicely introduces the conditions in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. We never experience those (or any) terrifying conditions again.
Furst's novels focus on the Everyman spy - the reluctant do-gooder who is persuaded to take extraordinary risks on matters of principle, justice, and patriotism. This really only works when the protagonist actually has to make sacrifices. Ferrar is barely inconvenienced by his covert work and never directly faces any real danger. He operates from Paris in comparative safety and comfort. He has meetings at night clubs, openly travels throughout Europe, visits his family, has an affair with a Marquesa, conducts business while horseback riding, flies to New York and buys an apartment for his relatives to escape to, and dines at the Brasserie Heininger, the location of Furst's favorite leitmotif - a bullet-hole-ridden mirror above Table #14. All in all, Ferrar seems to be having a pretty swell time while conducting an illegal arms deal more-or-less in his spare time.
With nothing really at stake, it's hard to care whether the arms-running plot succeeds - and even if it does, we all know how the Spanish Civil War plays out. What we really need in these kinds of novels is for the protagonist to undergo some kind of personal transformation or overcome some kind of inner war for which the events unfolding in Europe are merely the backdrop and/or a metaphor. Sadly, Ferrar has no personal arc, struggles with no inner conflict, and experiences no growth. What appears to be a story about a man trying to get a big gun from Russia to Spain turns out to be just a story about getting a big gun from Russia to Spain.(less)
I have never been so happy for a book to be over. In some ways, the experience of reading this trilogy was not unlike watching Episodes 1-3 of "Star W...moreI have never been so happy for a book to be over. In some ways, the experience of reading this trilogy was not unlike watching Episodes 1-3 of "Star Wars" following the first trilogy - you got the sense that the author just lost whatever self-control, focus, and vision he had in the beginning and just started throwing shit against the wall to see what would stick. Specters who suck people's souls out? Sure. Harpies guarding the Land of the Dead? Why not?! Elephant-like creatures who use large seed pods for wheels? Yes, and let's spend 100+ pages describing their habitat, morphology, communication methods, history, etc. even though they actually play no significant role in the story. This book actually made me feel angry.(less)