Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Waiting for Columbus

I won a signed copy of Thomas Trofimuk's novel Waiting for Columbus, and couldn't wait to read it. The reviews at Sophisticated Dorkiness and A Bookworm's World made me anticipate something really good. So I took it along this weekend when it was my turn to chaperone the high school band to a district contest, and read it most of the day, waiting to find out what happens to Columbus while waiting for the band to play their pieces and get judged.

The mystery of the novel is as much about what happened in the past to the character who calls himself Christopher Columbus as about what happens to him in the lunatic asylum he is brought to at the beginning of the novel. The narrative technique consists of weaving facts about the historical Columbus and speculation about his life together with incomplete flashes of memory from the lunatic's life, notes on the story he tells a psychiatric nurse, and the intersecting search of a detective for a missing man. It's quite effective; tempting as it is to believe this lunatic's story, the anachronisms continually remind the reader that something is amiss.

Much of the novel focuses on the psychiatric nurse, Consuela, who at first can't stop "thinking about this patient who wanted her to call a king and queen who've been dead for nearly five hundred years, on a telephone" and who eventually falls in love with Columbus, who charms everyone who meets him. Consuela describes him to her sister as "a chart maker, a stargazer, a navigator, and an amazing storyteller. He is possibly the most romantic man I have ever met."

Part of Columbus' charm is that he believes in an impossible journey into the unknown, literally to find a new world and metaphorically to find his modern identity. Because I work in the ivory tower, I'm familiar with the phenomenon of living and breathing one's interests, even to the extent of getting somewhat lost in them, so the attempt to solve the mystery of his identity didn't make it much of a page-turner for me. My interest was sustained by hints and gradations of truth, as when Columbus is discussing his voyage and says "Some awful thing above me. It waits...This journey is doomed to some catastrophe....So much death and destruction. And the thing is, I come through all right. Death is all around but it does not come for me....I want to defy my fate. I wish to disobey my destiny. I want forgiveness for what I'm about to do."

When Consuela tells "Columbus" that she's learned his real identity, he says "I don't want to hear this story" and she tries to help him distinguish between fiction and reality by saying "life is not a story, Columbus." He replies"Of course life is a story. Life is only a story." It's a seductive idea, as Columbus is a seductive character.

So I enjoyed reading this novel, although perhaps the build-up made me expect something even better. If you read it, I would recommend having a bottle of your favorite wine on hand in case you're like me and reading about people drinking good wine for a few hundred pages makes you want some yourself. I'm longing for white wine, hoping it will be like this description: "the wine bursts with flavor--pear and hints of apple. It is so cold it hurts her teeth."

Some people are especially prone to that, reading Peter Mayle or M.F.K. Fisher or even Julia Powell--we're suggestible when food or drink is mentioned. I'm certainly like that, which is why a friend of mine gave me The Narnia Cookbook some years ago, complete with an inscription that mentions my "appreciation of food in literature." Do you ever feel like this--wanting some of the food or wine or whatever you're reading about?


Luanne said...

Funnily Jeanne I never thought about if before, but you're right, the descriptios do whet my appetite. The School of Essential Ingredients had wonderful food descriptions. The flyleaves in the book were also glorious colour plates of a feast that looked yummy!

Aarti said...

How interesting that you read this so soon after Wish Her Safe at Home and it deals with what seems to be a similar theme- losing yourself in a story you make up about yourself. Did you notice parallels between the two?

Jeanne said...

Luanne, I do love books about food...sounds like The School of Essential Ingredients should go on my to-be-read list!

Aarti, No, I don't see any parallels; in fact the two stories are opposites. "Columbus" lives inside what he studies because he can't immediately face what has happened in his real life. It's almost a survival technique.
Rachel spends more and more time making up a life and then retreats into it because she doesn't like her real life. She is unwilling to return to reality; it's her way of "going gently into that good night."

Harriet said...

Absolutely. I think it all started with the "rosy-cheeked apples" and the delicious pictures in The Little Engine that Could." So let me ask you this: What is/are your favorite literary meal(s)?

bermudaonion said...

I've read several great reviews of this one, so I have it on my wish list. I'll have to remember that about the wine - of course, the right beverage makes everything better.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

You hit on what was my favorite part of this book: "It's quite effective; tempting as it is to believe this lunatic's story, the anachronisms continually remind the reader that something is amiss."

The more I read, the more I wanted what he said to be true. But almost simultaneously, the number of things that are just wrong start popping out and you know it can't be quite right. I thought that aspect of the storytelling was great.

I'm glad you mostly enjoyed the book :)

Jeanne said...

Harriet, my favorite literary meal has to be the beaver's dinner from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe because it's one of the only meals my whole family will help to prepare.

My second favorite is a Hemingway-esque picnic of cold fowl with bread and a glass of cold white wine.

Of course, our trip to France was one literary meal after another...one of the most fun, in terms of seeing some of the veneration for food described in the Peter Mayle books, was father's day lunch in Nice. The restaurant we picked packed every extra table, and it went on for hours, with multiple generations and even pets present.

Jeanne said...

Kathy, I agree; drinking and reading is the best way to get through the end of winter!

Kim, thanks for getting me interested and then sending it to me!

FreshHell said...

I do if the characters are eating and/or drinking something I like. If they're chowing down on meatloaf or hamburgers, it doesn't do a thing. No matter how loving they are described.

But wine? Yes. Lovely unusual cheeses? And bread? Tarts? Shit, anything sweet, and yes, I'm wishing they would share it. I need to figure out how to dive into books so I can help myself to the leftovers.

Jeanne said...

Freshhell, Tarts, heck yes. I once read about a vegetable tart and it sounded as good as the sweet ones.

Andrew Santella said...

Jake Barnes and his fishing buddy have coffee and buttered toast for breakfast on their Spanish vacation in the Sun Also Rises. ("Or rather, bread toasted and buttered.") I've never understood the distinction, but to this day I can't make a piece of toast without thinking of fly-fishing.

Jenny said...

I've read about this before, but for some reason didn't add it to my TBR list. Thanks for the reminder! I looooove books about the power of stories.

Jeanne said...

Andrew, "bread toasted and buttered" sounds more elaborate and maybe better (less drippy?) than "buttered toast." That's an interesting connection you've got going there--you don't say if you can make toast without thinking of fly fishing!

Jenny, one of the things I kind of glossed over is that the "power of story" in this novel includes the power of fascination over everyone he meets, especially women.

Anonymous said...

Ave never heard about this book but it sounds good. Am a bit of a history buff so its an added bonus that a historical figure is one of the central characters of the book. Thanks for your review. Will definitely give it a read.