Pandora in the Congo

There are many ripe enjoyments to pluck from the fruitful involutions contained within Albert S?nchez Piñol’s second novel, which could be read as a pulp-friendly response to Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Both novels contain fictions within fiction. Both explore the visceral burdens of sustaining illusion. Both are kick-started by events preceding a cataclysmic world war.

But I find myself fixated on a turtle: specifically, a foul-tempered tortoise named Marie Antoinette who scuttles around a boarding house tormenting this book’s narrator, Tommy Thomson. Marie, the peevish terrapin in question, belongs to Tommy’s landlady. She twists her form around Tommy’s ankle. And, if we are to believe Tommy, Marie hates him with “an unfathomable passion.” Tommy, in turn, sees Marie as little more than a crawling rugby ball, and kicks the turtle across the hallway. Upon being toppled, Marie doesn’t recoil into her shell but ambushes her enemy, “lying in wait behind the leg of a wardrobe.” Tommy responds by launching the turtle “off the balcony in the style of a javelin thrower.”

Such slapstick suggests a resourceful animal reflecting the darker fury of humankind. But this is a turtle of letters who isn’t going away anytime soon. Like Don Marquis’s Archy, Marie can bang out messages for Tommy on his typewriter. And we learn, years later, that the landlady has bequeathed Marie to Tommy in her will. Marie is also a rare species of turtle who can live up to 300 years, which ensures that “she will have outlived all the characters in this story.” Since Tommy spends much of the novel wrangling together wild adventures, we might forgive him for his bold and extravagant claims. After all, an act of creation involves flipping an eldritch switch shifting sane trains off the smooth tracks. But what does his perspective say about his nature?

The madcap antics peeping out with this hardshell carbineer should give a gallant reader some sense of what she’s in for. For Piñol has whipped up a genre-blended martini with a plot twist of prime Congo lime. This odd but surprisingly appealing cocktail results in a baroque and often very funny narrative about the madness of making narratives.

If we observe the myth that the world rests on a turtle’s robust back, then Piñol’s intrusive turtle is worth considering. For Tommy is a young man commissioned to write a manuscript “halfway between a biography and a will.” A lawyer named Edward Norton has asked Tommy to meet regularly in prison with a suspect named Marcus Garvey — whose name evokes the turn-of-the-century Pan-Africanist. The real Garvey worked at a Jamaican banana plantation and hit London roughly around the same time as Piñol’s fictive counterpart, but this Garvey is in prison, waiting around for a double murder trial. The manuscript generated from these ironside chats will, according to Norton, serve as court testimony that will get him off death row.

Tommy has some experience working from unusual outlines. For the novel’s initial pages depict Tommy writing a racist and imperialist adventure called Pandora in the Congo, a short pulp novel in a pre-Great War adventure series. There’s a man named Strub, who may just burst if he can’t bust out the three eighty-page adventures a week he needs to support his family. He enlists Tommy to help him meet the three novels a week quota. His writing career begins and continues with Marcus at thrice the pay.

In these meetings, Marcus tells Tommy a whopper of a story. Marcus headed to the Congo on a quest for riches with two upper-class imperalists named the Cravers. And the group engages in many barbarities with little remorse. Any worker carrying a mammoth box of champagne for the Cravers is dead from exhaustion before the day is done. But the narrative itself sympathizes not with the victims, but with “the loneliness of the executioners.” Does this inverted sentiment emerge from Marcus (the source of the story) or Tommy (the narrative translator)? This is an interesting yet uncomfortable question, one rising as the relationship between story scraps and the “complete” narrative unfolds. But because Piñol keeps this story within the story quite gripping, he somehow manages to prevent these fetid moral dilemmas from stinking up his tropical atmosphere. At the same time, the ugliness that resides beneath the narrative suggests that this is no ordinary metafictional romp.

Of course, every tale of this ilk needs a way in which vengeance can be exacted on the perpetrators of abuse. In this case, the imperialists see their fates sealed with the Tectons, beings who are reminiscent of H.G. Wells’s Morlocks in their subterranean living preferences. Among the twelve-fingered Tectons is a tall and etiolated beauty named Amgam, an appellation suggestive of a grand game. But the ghost writer becomes so taken with Amgam that he, in turn, finds himself chasing a potential ghost. He is enlisted to fight in World War I and, while on the front, he sees her in a gaseous cloud. Amgam’s shape becomes “more vivid than I had ever imagined it in any of my narrative efforts.” He later chases around a very tall woman who may just be Amgam. Is Tommy suffering from Stendhal’s syndrome? Or is he, as he suggests at several points, an easily duped naif?

A game is certainly afoot, but it wouldn’t be sporting to reveal Piñol’s clever finale. Needless to say, the author does plant some intriguing clues along the way. Colorful characters are often disguised by eccentric facial hair. Norton has “a thin moustache and perfectly bald head.” Sergeant Long Back, who supervises the jailhouse meetings between Tommy and Marcus, has “a Serbian-style moustache.” These moustaches may present isthmuses between the baldness of an unformed narrative and the hirsute hysteria of a sensationalist story run amuck. But the work here is so enjoyable that one need not peck around too much for semiotics.

Translator Mara Faye Lethem is to be commended for preserving many of Piñol’s zany similes in the English form. An attorney speaks before the court “as if he enjoyed murdering the hopes of his adversary.” When Tommy listens to Marcus, it’s “like drinking a thousand cups of coffee.” A house bombed by a zeppelin resembles “a collapsed stone accordion.”

This exuberant language makes for a rollicking read, but it also disguises a sadder tale beneath the surface. To return to the turtle, Tommy may be hostile to Marie because the real world is, for him, a tremendous burden. His manuscript exceeds his wildest expectations: even Mr. MacMahon, an eccentric neighbor who doesn’t really like books, is persuaded to read it. While Tommy’s version of Marcus’s story presents a narrative with sutures that line up, it is this same reluctant reader who pokes holes in its logic. But MacMahon exists in a reality Marcus can’t quite fathom. Piñol’s wry suggestion is that all good novelists may be like turtles holding up the world with their labor, although they may not necessarily be able to see it. But they sure make the backbreaking work look easy.