The Washington Post
In the Company of Angelsby Thomas E. Kennedy
In the Company of Angels is the powerful story of two damaged souls trying to find their way from darkness toward light.
Imprisoned and tortured for months by Pinochet's henchmen for teaching political poetry to his students, Bernardo Greene is visited by two angels, who promise him that he will survive to experience beauty and love once again. Months/i>
In the Company of Angels is the powerful story of two damaged souls trying to find their way from darkness toward light.
Imprisoned and tortured for months by Pinochet's henchmen for teaching political poetry to his students, Bernardo Greene is visited by two angels, who promise him that he will survive to experience beauty and love once again. Months later, at the Torture Rehabilitation Center in Copenhagen, the Chilean exile befriends Michela Ibsen, herself a survivor of domestic abuse. In the long nights of summer, the two of them struggle to heal, to forgive those who have left them damaged, and to trust themselves to love.
Dense with wisdom and humanity, possessed of a timeless, fable-like quality, In the Company of Angels is a riveting read and a testament to the resilience and complexity of the human heart.
The novel marks the first large-scale US publication of a major American author, known internationally but only within literary circles in his homeland.
The Washington Post
“In the Company of Angels is powerful and of the moment … Kennedy writes clean, evocative prose, and an occasional note of humor leavens this dark novel. He is a writer to be reckoned with, and it's about time the reckoning got underway in the country of his birth.” Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
“[An] ensnaring and original novel…. Kennedy doesn't heap on the misery in order (or not only) to create a compelling psycho-melodrama. He is serious about wanting to get at -- dig down to -- what it is that makes people do unspeakable things…. caring about characters' fates makes a hands-down more engaging read than most of the desperately cool ego trips published these days. "In the Company of Angels" is simply an unforgettable novel. Its tongue is not tucked up safely in its cheek.” Kai Maristed, Los Angeles Times
“[A] wide-ranging and assured novel….The stories of torture that emerge…offer, in their horror and dignity, a quiet criticism of the characters with more prosaic problems.” The New Yorker
“In the Company of Angels is a novel about grown-ups, people battered and dinged by life, painfully aware of their own responsibility, whose understanding of their past never stops evolving. It's the dignity of their adulthood -- the elusive prize at stake in any midlife crisis -- that makes them so admirable and, above all, so moving.” Laura Miller, Salon.com
“Thomas E. Kennedy is nothing if not a risk-taker…and (In the Company of Angels) is a gripping read…Kennedy's book is a brave one.” Emily Carter, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
“It probably doesn't reflect glowingly on American expat Kennedy's native country that this watershed novel is the first to be published in the U.S. after a decade of acclaim abroad. Why it's taken so long is anyone's guess, as there's plenty to admire in the serpentine unwinding of troubled protagonists adrift in contemporary Copenhagen.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“This is the first volume of the series to be published in the U.S. If its stellar quality is any indication, the entire quartet promises to be an exceptional reading experience … This novel offers much more than just a beautiful writing style. Each character's story is so undeniably interesting that the reader gains a sense of the wonder of disparate lives with unpredictable but intriguing connections.” Booklist (starred review)
“Kennedy writes with unusual insight and compassion, depicting the best and the worst of the human experience. His work may be new to U.S. readers, but it merits greater attention, and we should look forward to seeing the other three books in his quartet published here. A great choice for readers of literary fiction.” Library Journal
“Expatriate American author Kennedy finally gets the major U.S. release merited by his European reviews with this third volume of his Copenhagen Quartet … An artfully written story with a conscience.” Kirkus Reviews
“[This novel] lacks nothing … Kennedy is a master craftsman.” Books Ireland
“Tragic, wise, comic, profound … An epic of the human heart struggling for meaning and redemption.” Literary Review
“A glorious novel by a modern master.” Irish Edition
“Rich and intense… There are no literary pyrotechnics here, just good storytelling that we all have a right to demand from our authors. [It is] a performance you will seldom come across, and one that will stay with you for some time.” Michael Lee, The Barnstable Patriot
“Although it is a novel about loss, In the Company of Angels is also about the redemption of hope through love… (Kennedy's) many admirers will welcome this first mainstream U.S. novel publication. This is a matter for celebration and surely marks the beginning of another stage in his distinguished career.” Thomas McCarthy, New Letters: A Magazine of Writing & Art
“Redemptive and powerful storytelling… In the midst of a heartless world, this story has heart.” Dave Moyer, New York Journal of Books
“Thomas E. Kennedy is an astonishment, and In the Company of Angels is as elegant as it is beautiful, as important as it is profound. A marvel of a read.” Junot Díaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
“With generous and elegant prose, Kennedy takes us from the darkest, most violent regions of our collective behavior to our most exalted...A deeply stirring novel, suffused with intelligence, grace, and that rarest of qualities--wisdom.” Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog
“A terrible, wonderful, horrible, truthful, heartbreaking, and heart-mending book. The word masterpiece should never be used lightly, but [In the Company of Angels] is exactly that, a masterpiece written by a master. How can anyone know so much about the human heart?” Duff Brenna, author of The Book of Mamie, The Willow Man, Too Cool, The Altar of the Body, and The Holy Book of the Beard
“In the Company of Angels is both a riveting examination of the violence we've come to take for granted, and an unsentimental, morally complex love story. Thomas Kennedy tackles the darkest of subjects, but with searing precision and grace, and with such feeling for ordinary humanity, that this book is full of light. It's the sort of novel that reminds me why novels are important.” Rene Steinke, author of Holy Skirts
“Thomas E. Kennedy's In the Company of Angels is a beautiful love story, a testimony to the human spirit, an important message to our world of darkness that the spark of light cannot be extinguished.... The setting, the descriptions, the complex relationship between Michela and Voss, Michela's love for her parents, the professional dedication of Thorkild Kristensen... All of this, the many brilliantly interwoven plot lines, the composition of the chapters, contribute to making the book truly difficult to put down. And the writing is stunning.” Susan Tiberghiehn, Founder and Director, Geneva Writers Conference; Author of One Year to a Writing Life and Looking for Gold
- Bloomsbury UK
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Read an Excerpt
In the Company of AngelsA NOVEL
By Thomas E. Kennedy
Bloomsbury USACopyright © 2010 Thomas E. Kennedy
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePART I
The Woman with Eyes of Blue Light
"Silence and screams are the end of my song." -Victor Jara, September 1973
1. A car door slams
The first time Nardo saw the woman with eyes of blue light, he woke from a dream in which the angels had forsaken him. He bolted from beneath the covers and huddled in the corner of his bedroom. It was dark. He did not know he was in a new land.
Through the window he could see stars trembling in the clear black night. It might have been the sky over Valparaíso. He listened for the sound of a car door slamming shut, footsteps on the wooden staircase ... But there was nothing. Just tires sizzling past on the roadway and two or three young men talking loudly on the lake bank, staggering home from a Saturday night serving house. No angels. No woman with eyes of light. But he had seen her. Her gaze was cut into his mind.
Slowly he became aware of the sweat that soaked into the underwear he'd slept in, that wet his scalp, his temples. And the pain, of course. In all the usual places. Teeth, joints, head. Within.
But no one was coming up the stair. For here he was now. Far away. Delivered. And that, anyhow, was something. The angels had kept their word.
He remained crouching there for a long while.
Even if you live to go out and tell this, Nardo, no one will believe you. Do you think they will? No one will. No one outside of this room will ever believe the things that happen here, and the more you try to tell of what happened, the less they will believe. To make them believe, you will have to edit, to distill, to tell only the tiniest little portion of it, and when you tell only the tiniest little portion, why, then they will be inclined to think, after all, perhaps there was a reason for this, perhaps the police sometimes need to employ certain means and measures.
This was the frog-eyed one speaking, the worst of them, perhaps, one of the worst. He spoke quietly, meditatively, pausing to pu4 on a cigar while Nardo hung by one foot and one hand, and Frog-eyes pushed him, like a swing, holding an imaginary conversation in which he pretended first to be Nardo-"Let me tell you," he said to the imaginary person Nardo was supposed to be informing about this, "let me tell you what these animales did to me, listen!"-and then he would reply, playing the role of the person Nardo was to have been telling, "Oh, come now, you can't mean this, surely you exaggerate. What do you take me for? This is too bizarre, really ..."
Then he interrupted himself. No, my swinging friend, he said, and gave another push. Nardo could hear the cartilage that held arm to shoulder creak and pop. No, it will be worse than that. They will not even say nothing. They will seem to listen to you with the face of great sympathy and say nothing, but in their little heads ... He circled his forefinger at the side of his own skull. In their little heads they will be thinking. This man is full of the shit. He is nuts. That is what they will think of your tales, my swinging friend. No one likes the little boy who tells tales out of class. And he removed the cigar from his lips and smiled, and Nardo began to scream even before the glowing tip pressed against his nipple.
2. The place of screaming
We had come so far. Yet any further step began to seem hopeless. He sat across from me, perfectly still, body aligned with the sharp angles of the chair, so immobile that his face might have been cut from a brown paper bag: two eye slits, a rectangular mouth that said nothing. Watching him, I became aware of the chair he sat in, how rigidly he conformed to its severe lines. I thought of a chair I had seen the weekened before, browsing with my wife in a department store, one with gently curving arms, a molded seat. Light and comfortable to sit in, springy. An Arne Jacobsen chair of deep lacquered green.
Alfonso Laurencic, who designed torture cells for the Spanish Republicans-the so-called cells of color-had claimed that red was stimulating, blue relaxing, while green evoked melancholy and sadness. I did not agree. The green of that chair was full of peace, of quiet hope. It was expensive, too. The center's finance department could never approve its purchase. I decided I would pay for it myself. Perhaps it would help him to release the sorrow in his body, to set free the poisoned emotion coiled within him.
My gaze moved around the office, alert to other possible subtle obstructions, but the colors were soft and cheerful, the green of the potted palm calming to the eye, the bookshelf lined with multicolored spines of books, the dreamy Chagall prints on the walls.
The silence continued. I watched him. He was dressing with more care now, I had noticed. No longer the dark, colorless garments, not black or gray or brown, an indistinct mix, like spillage, shades and styles that seemed to suggest a desire to be invisible, clothing that seemed to say, I am no one. No reason to look at me. No reason to see me. Now he was neat, elegant even. A shirt of deep clear blue, squarely knotted brown wool necktie, dark green Irish tweed jacket with hand-stitched lapels. And his arm, unfrozen now from its bent immobility, hysterical paralysis. That has been our triumph. It seemed to me he must have been fully aware of the progress we had made together, but still he sat there and stared at nothing, motionless.
What question could I pose to break the ice of his posture? Why did you scream? It was in the grip of that screaming, that terrible screaming those weeks ago, that he began to nail his arms, clawing at the air with both hands, reclaiming the movement of his paralyzed arm. A dramatic change. I had been trained to consider dramatic change suspect, but this was a genuine, and seeming permanent, dramatic change.
I still did not know what he had seen, what memories had induced his screaming. He told me so little, just bits of it, glimpses, some few details, the man he called Frog-eyes, who closed the door on his hand. He had had to invent names for them all because it was not permitted for detainees to know the names of their keepers. Frog-eyes. Tweedsuit. Flatnose. Mustache. Frog-eyes was the one Nardo had had most contact with, and slowly I began to feel I knew that nameless man. I felt in myself a desire not to know him, not to witness. The thought occurred to me that were I to look into Frog-eyes's face, so to speak, were I to come to know him, the knowledge would sear me like acid.
I thought again about something one of the other survivors once told me in response to a question I posed about what had been done to him. You do not want to know the answer, my friend, he said to me. Just to know the answer to this will damage your soul. Maybe forever. Better change jobs. Become a fireman. Save people from burning rooms; it is safer.
But I had to return to that place with Nardo, the place of the screaming, had to help him relive those memories. I was afraid, too, but I had to go there with him.
"How is the arm?" I asked. A circuitous approach.
Without turning his eyes from the nowhere on which they were focused, he lifted the once dead arm, extended one finger, flicked it against his cheek as if shooing a mosquito, lowered it to the wooden arm of the chair again.
I waited. He waited.
"Tell me where you are, Nardo. What are you thinking?"
His eyes contracted visibly. He saw something. I could see that he saw something far away from us but alive still, inside him.
"Tell me, Nardo."
But he said nothing.
3. Source of the fertile God
Fresh air scented with the sap of newly clipped grass drifted in the window. Through the gentle angle of the blinds, I could see midmorning sunlight on green leaves and, across the road, the great looming beast of the State Hospital. Fronds in the potted palm beside my bookcase drifted in the breeze.
Last time, Nardo announced that he would not return. I could not know if he meant it or not, so I have reviewed my notes, preparing for his visit as usual. I have replaced the straight-backed chair with the more comfortable Arne Jacobsen model that suggested nothing of a state facility. Nardo's experiences with state facilities have, to say the least, not been conducive to trust. The new chair is a deep, cheerful green. I defy Alfonso Laurencic and his sick research. The chair was very expensive. For your clinic? my wife asked. It must have been dim cult for her to understand, especially when I suggested we wait until the end of the summer to buy the children's new shoes, but she was patient with me.
I had to make Nardo understand the difference between interrogation and anamnesis, and this was not an interrogation chair. Together we had to dredge through the memories, the emotions behind the memories. He seemed to remember most of what had happened, but I had to help him fill in the blanks and especially to remember what he had been feeling in order to free him of it. To begin to free him back to who he was before, a man who read, taught, who held convictions he valued more than his own safety.
An idealist? Naive? Self-destructive? Tempting his own ill fate? Perhaps he had to be helped to see himself more clearly to avoid those traits that led him into that hell-but this was a fine line to tread; on the other side of it lay the game of blaming the victim, punishing the wronged instead of the wrongdoer.
I remembered what Nardo had told me the other day in an unguarded moment about the things he was accused of teaching. I just taught them, he said. They existed and they were beautiful and true, and so I taught these things to the children so that they would know they existed, too. I did not think about it. I did not think. Now I think. So they have won.
But I thought it was not so simple. I knew that his father had died in the stadium with Victor Jara when Nardo was only a teenager. What our fathers do, the fates they choose and that choose them, drive us as surely as Oedipus toward our own fate, whether we run from it or not. That is what a man must understand.
I could not contain my smile when Nardo appeared at the door of my consultation room right on time for his appointment. I rose, beaming. To hell with professional objectivity! I was glad he had come! He nodded formally, looked at the new chair. He touched the smooth green line of its back. "A beautiful object," he said, and sat.
I could see something new. I waited. Then, "How was your week?"
It took a moment for me to catch the pun. "The weak week of a strong man."
His face registered nothing. He reached to the name plaque on my desk, held it before his eyes. "Dr. T. Kristensen. Son of Christian."
"You are welcome to use my first name if you prefer. Thorkild. Source of Thor."
"Source of the fertile God."
"My parents played both sides." I regretted the words as soon as they left my mouth. Anything said can break the spell of objectivity, blur the necessary border between us. Now he had an opening, might ask which side I was on, and we would be back into the pointless ideological fencing on which we had wasted so much time earlier-even as I myself had to confront the daunting question of which side I would have been on if I had been born there where Nardo came from: the dangerous side that sought democracy or the easy side that protected privilege?
But Nardo let it be. He put the plaque back onto my desk and said, "I think I will just to call you doctor."
"Fine. Tell me about your week."
"I met a woman."
"A Danish woman. See, the black-heads come and steal your womans."
"Is that what you feel people think?"
"What you think is what matters."
"Well, anyway, I lied. I did not meet a woman. I saw a woman. And she smiled at me. A beautiful smile."
"Next time you can say hello."
"Hello," he said. "Hell. O."
His gaze was nowhere again, in some pit of hopelessness, perhaps, where even the faintest glimmer of hope served to remind him there was no hope, only an abyss. I watched him, waited to catch his eyes, but he was better at waiting.
I took a breath. It would be so much easier just to chat, but that was not what we had to do. "We have to go back," I said.
He remained silent. Then, "Back to the future."
"No. Back to the place of screaming."
4. Because I do not know the names of things
El Domingo. Sunday. Nardo finished his work early and climbed down the wooden staircase from his little second-story apartment to stand outside his gray-stone building, on the bank of one of the street lakes. He looked at the sky above the low buildings on the other side of the murky water, looked to his right and left along the lake bank, at the green chestnut trees stirring in the breeze that drifted in from the eastern side of the city. A swan gliding past glanced at him to see if he had bread. He shook his head with a smile of apology. Not today, my friend. And set out to explore the streets of this new city, this new land, in search of his hunger.
He fancied he was looking for her, a woman whose name he did not even know but whose eyes had met his one afternoon in the café across the lake. Eyes like blue fire. Warm of life. He had seen her three times, and once she had smiled at him. If only he could remember what one said to a woman, he thought surely he would speak to her. He wished he could learn about her, could know her name, so that he could think about her more clearly, prepare himself in case there was to be some meaning in this.
For a few blocks, he followed the lakes that banded a crescent of Copenhagen's perimeter, trying to see what was around him. At the first traffic light, he turned left, in toward the center, crossed to stroll across the expanse of the botanical gardens, blooming now with flowers whose names he did not know, came out on the other side at the old northern gate of the city, torn down years ago and rebuilt as a metropolitan subway station. He had seen a picture of the old gate, a sketch, in one of the books he borrowed from the library. The gate to a walled city, now open. His own apartment would have been outside the walls, open to attack, but the old city grew outward now, north and south, westward toward the water-what water?-eastward toward another island. A city of islands.
Past the station, in along a narrow pedestrian street, he turned, his hands clasped at the small of his back, looking. The walk was flanked by banks and shops, a butcher with a gilded steer head above its window, the wide face of a liquor store with its many bottles, a little shoe shop. He crossed a broad square that his books had told him was once the place where the coal was delivered, piled high here and guarded by men with pikes. He gazed into the sadness of closed shop windows, dress mannequins alone in their shadows. Obliquely he gazed into the faces of the Danes he passed on the sidewalk, at the strange long words on street signs that he had to read letter by letter to construct what he could rarely be certain was their correct pronunciation or meaning. His lips formed words of his own: Por no saber los nombres de Cosas, no los expreso. Because I do not know the names of things, I do not express them. The words of a Spanish explorer in the new world-the old new world that he had left behind. Worse, without the names, without words, he was not certain he could see at all. What does a tree look like whose name you do not know? A flower without a name might be invisible.
A man without a name is a stranger.
At home now, the summer night would be alive with sounds whose names were so familiar, he needn't even think them: birds crying out, the movement of leaves, tall ferns, the dark filled with sounds of insects and frogs. But he was not home. There was no home.
He walked boulevards, allés, narrow winding streets whose cobblestones sounded sharply beneath the leather heels of his low boots, along the curving facades of buildings that had stood since the last great fire in 1795, before his own flaco string bean of a country had finished driving the Indians south, then freed itself to redefine liberty as the freedom to acquire, always punishing not the wrongdoer, but the wronged.
Stopping to gauge his bearings, he found himself by the central canals, standing beneath the equestrian statue of Bishop Absalon, the founder of the city a millennium before. The bronze bishop, lofty on his horse, wielded an ax. A bishop with a weapon. But Nardo had read in his history of the city that Georg Brandes, a Danish thinker of a hundred years before, had said that with an ax you can also build. Who was the poet who said, I do not create, I destroy-I cut through ice?
Excerpted from In the Company of Angels by Thomas E. Kennedy Copyright © 2010 by Thomas E. Kennedy. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Thomas E. Kennedy was born in New York City and has lived in Copenhagen for over two decades. He has written over twenty books, mostly published by small presses, including novels, short stories, and essays. He has won numerous awards, including the Eric Hoffer Award in 2007 for In the Company of Angels (Danish ed.), the Pushcart Prize and the O. Henry Prize for short stories, and the National Magazine Award in 2008. In the Company of Angels is one of four novels comprising the Copenhagen Quartet, which Duff Brenna called "a masterpiece." Kennedy wrote the Quartet in English and translated it himself for Danish publication. The Quartet was also published in a small Irish edition. Kennedy is a member of Fairleigh Dickinson University's Global Virtual Faculty.
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