Tesla: A Portrait with Masks

Tesla: A Portrait with Masks

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by Vladimir Pistalo

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An electric novel of the extraordinary life of one of the twentieth century's most prodigious and colorful inventors

Nikola Tesla was a man forever misunderstood. From his boyhood in what is present-day Croatia, where his father, a Serbian Orthodox priest, dismissed his talents, to his tumultuous years in New York City, where his

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An electric novel of the extraordinary life of one of the twentieth century's most prodigious and colorful inventors

Nikola Tesla was a man forever misunderstood. From his boyhood in what is present-day Croatia, where his father, a Serbian Orthodox priest, dismissed his talents, to his tumultuous years in New York City, where his heated rivalry with Thomas Edison yielded triumphs and failures, Tesla was both demonized and lionized. Tesla captures the whirlwind years of the dawn of the electrical age, when his flair for showmanship kept him in the public eye. For every successful invention--the alternating current electrical system and wireless communication among them--there were hundreds of others. But what of the man behind the image? Vladimir Pistalo reveals the inner life of a man haunted by the loss of his older brother, a man who struggled with flashes of madness and brilliance whose mistrust of institutional support led him to financial ruin. Tesla: A Portrait with Masks is an impassioned account of a visionary whose influence is still felt today.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Serbian writer Pištalo’s novel gives a compelling fictionalized account of inventor Nikola Tesla’s inscrutable and solitary life. From a young age, Tesla forsook love as a fool’s distraction that impeded work and serious studies. He worked as a professor in Croatia before moving to the United States in search of Thomas Edison, the greatest inventor of his time. Much to Tesla’s dismay, he soon finds Edison to be a hack who steals ideas from others. He quits his job under Edison and bounces around before finding space to invent again. Soon after, Tesla invents the alternating current electrical system—perhaps his most notable creation. As a result of his success, Tesla meets some of the world’s most important and famous figures, including a memorable encounter with Mark Twain (“If you don’t count thinking,” Tesla tells Twain, “I’m the laziest man in the world”). But his life remains lonely and as Tesla watches many of those around him succumb to disease, addiction, and age, he remains solitary to a fault. The book is episodic with some narration tics: for instance, at times, the unnamed narrator breaks the fourth wall. The book does not rise to the level of mythos associated with Tesla’s story, and is less biography than a fragmented set of impressions, but Pištalo’s thorough account of a great man’s personality and habits is done to fine effect. (Jan.)
Charles Simic

Beautifully written, immensely entertaining, and astonishingly original in the way it tells the story of a man who they used to say 'invented the twentieth century,' but whose life is still an enigma, Tesla: A Portrait with Masks has the richness, the high jinks and the originality of such modern classics as Günter Grass's The Tin Drum and Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.
author of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country Ken Kalfus

Tesla is a profoundly absorbing meditation on the early, defining years of the modern age. Vladimir Pistalo has drawn a lightning-etched portrait of a genius as powerful, as transformative and as mysterious as electricity itself.
Francine Prose

Much has been written about Nikolai Tesla, but Vladimir Pistalo's extraordinary and profoundly original novel manages to tell us something entirely new--not only about the brilliant 'mad-genius' inventor but also about the ways in which literature and the imagination can transform biography into great art.
Library Journal
Inventors Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison—the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of their era? That's the publisher's fanciful characterization of this account of the life of Serbian-born Tesla (1856–1943), whose numerous inventions include the alternating-current electrical system and wireless communication. Sarajevo-born Pištalo, who won Serbia's prestigious NIN Prize and of whose 11 books of fiction this is the first to be published in English, tracks his subject from lowly village boy through his travels to western Europe then on to America, where he tangles with Edison and George Westinghouse, experiences dire poverty, then rises to renown—"Lady Astor's salon could accommodate only the Four Hundred. Tesla was one of them." Along the way he also rubs shoulders with Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Poland's former prime minister Ignacy Paderewski, and Stanford White, among others. Pištalo's exuberance at times leads to such sentences as "Abstract concepts flew from Tesla's mouth like cosmic winds that powered ethereal engines." Though the author provides a wealth of detail, we don't glimpse Tesla from the inside out. The translation is aptly idiomatic. VERDICT Recommended for readers who enjoy a life story told with pizzazz.—Edward B. Cone, New York
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-12-07
In his first novel translated into English, Pištalo recounts the tortured, fascinating life of Nikola Tesla, a familiar figure in pop culture and history. This tale charts much of Tesla's life: his fraught relationship with his father, his feud with Edison, his seclusion in old age. But Pištalo's great achievement is to see beyond the familiar. Absent is the forbidding notion of the "great man" found in many biographies; with the freedom of fiction, Pištalo shows a fragile but driven individual, easily wounded, somewhat arrogant and tortured by memories of family trauma. Is poetic license taken occasionally? Absolutely. But this isn't nonfiction. Instead, it has the scope of biography, the intimacy of fiction and the elegance of poetry. Pištalo's fractured structure—with elliptical chapters—provides the sense of a life being lived in front of the reader, moment by moment. (This remains true despite some authorial intrusions, e.g., "At this point of the story, I have to gently but firmly take the reader by the arm….") But finally, there is Tesla himself at the center, a figure from history who, here, seems appealingly modern—a man merely trying "to piece together some sort of meaning for his life." Take, for instance, the early chapters, in which he leaves the comforts of the small village where he grew up to attend school in a big city. There, he has a college experience like any other: meeting combative and supportive professors, struggling with grades and too much partying, and spending long nights sharing new ideas with new friends. Surely many readers will recognize these experiences. This is the great empathetic work that fiction can do: taking a life from the past and making it relatable. A moving, inventive and poetic work of biographical fiction.

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Tesla: A Portrait with Masks

A Novel

By Vladimir Pistalo, Bogdan Raki, John Jeffries

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2008 Vladimir Pistalo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-332-2



A Beautiful Phenomenon

What is this world?

What is the purpose of existence?

Such thoughts played in Milutin Tesla's head like kittens until he settled on the ultimate, frightening question: What is "what"? At this point the priest's thoughts died out and he started to feel dizzy.

The human mind is pragmatic—it's basically a tool, Milutin concluded. A saw cuts trees. One can take a bow and play music on it, but that's not what a saw's made for.

He advised his students to stop dithering and make up their minds. "I, for example, was about to graduate from a military academy," he told them, "but I quit and became a priest."

Milutin's first parish was in Senj, the windy city mentioned in many Serbian epic songs. There he kept telling his parishioners: "So I ask a favor and advise you for your own good: Don't be uncouth—you are folks endowed with common sense. Therefore, embrace the spirit of progress, the spirit of the people. Focus on liberty, equality, and brotherhood."

The parishioners ignored their priest's efforts to enlighten them. They griped about him being sickly and, actually, ridiculous. They were of the opinion that he was guilty of his ailments and wanted to fire him. The priest answered that being around people like them would make anyone sick.

"Do you think I get anything out of being here?" Milutin Tesla asked them sarcastically. "I wouldn't be much worse off if I moved to Bessarabia."

But instead of Bessarabia, Father Milutin got transferred to the village of Smiljan in Lika. During his stay there, he never failed to mount his horse to go administer last rites to the dying, even when the winter nights glowed with wolves' eyes. After a long ride, the priest would shake the snow from his mink coat and enter the sick man's shack. He would come up to the bed, bend over the dying, and speak in a low voice: "Now you can open your heart and whisper to me what weighs you down because God hears best the whispered word." And the rough men would open up their hearts and tell the stories of their lives in ways no one had ever heard before. The priest tried in vain to forget most of what he heard.

In his house buried in the snow, Milutin Tesla spent a lot of time reading. He read about railways, the Crimean War, and the new palace built of glass in London. For a local paper, the Smiljan priest wrote an article on cholera spreading from Dalmatia to Lika "like oil over a table." He also wrote about the "countless impediments" that a champion of public education encountered in the most backward parts of the Karlovci Diocese. For the Serbian Daily, he reported on a "beautiful phenomenon" created by atmospheric light, which occurred right on St. Peter's Day. Milutin Tesla described it as a waterfall of sparks that appeared both distant and yet so close he could touch it with his hand. The light left blue tracers behind as it vanished over a hill. At the same time, something rumbled loudly, as if a huge tower collapsed to the ground. The echo reverberated across the southern slopes of Velebit for a long time. God's little phenomenon "made the stars look pale." is occurrence gave common people a lot to talk about, while a more thoughtful observer (apparently Milutin Tesla himself) felt sorry that it did not last longer—this display of God's nature ended in the blink of an eye.

The weather was sweltering just before it all happened. Afterward it rained, but the clouds dissipated in the evening: The air was cold, the sky smiled, and the stars glowed brighter than ever; but all of a sudden, something flashed in the east and—as if three hundred torches were lit—the light stretched all the way to the west. The stars withdrew, and it appeared that all nature stood still ...

The Parliament of the World

It always frightened the children when their father went through a transformation. Milutin forbade his family to enter his room when he worked on his Sunday sermons. All of a sudden his angry, deep voice would resound from behind the locked door, followed by a soothing female voice, and then several incoherent shouts. Anyone listening would swear that there was more than one person in there. The sermon was theater. Djuka Tesla and her sons were scared as they listened to Milutin alter his voice and argue with himself inside the locked room. Even the girls did not dare open the door. They were afraid to find their father transformed into unknown shapes. Behind the ordinary door, which suddenly looked mysterious, the priest whispered in German, shouted in Serbian, hissed in Hungarian, and purred in Latin, while in the background someone droned in Old Church Slavonic.

What was going on in there? Was it another "beautiful phenomenon" that called for an explanation? Did this Saint Anthony from Smiljan actually converse with his temptations? Did he feel lonely? Did this secluded polyglot see himself as the Parliament of the World? Did he practice delivering his sermon as a play in which he was both the tragic and the comic hero, as well as the chorus?



A Spark from Flint

While Nikola and Dane listened, their eyes shone like fireflies. The head of a skinny chicken dangled from Mother's lap as she posed riddles:

"What goes through the forest without a rustle, through the water without a splash?"

"A shadow!" said Dane, always quicker than Nikola.

"What hates water?" asked Mother.

"Cats and clocks!"

The folktales Nikola, the younger boy, liked the most were "Justice and Injustice," "What the Devil Is Scheming While Pretending He Is Good," and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." In the last tale, the devil asked the apprentice if he has learned anything. "No, I've forgotten even what I used to know," the apprentice replied. Nikola liked these stories because in them fools and younger brothers were really important. Djuka lulled him and his sister Marica to sleep by spinning yarns:

"As he traveled all over the world disguised as a beggar, Saint Sava came to the manor of a wealthy baron who possessed enormous riches ..."

Nikola's eyes almost closed. He hovered on the edge of sleep.

"Then Saint Sava made the sign of the cross with his staff and the baron's manor turned into a lake ..."

Was he dreaming?

"People say that every year on that day the water gurgles as a rooster crows from the bottom of the lake ..."

Because her mother was blind, Djuka Mandi had to start managing her parents' household at an early age. Except for the stories her mother told her, she did not have a childhood. She wove all the linen in the house and took care of the younger children. To make things worse, cholera began to spread itself over Lika like "oil over a table." While her father was off administering last rites, the disease killed their next-door neighbors. The girl herself washed and dressed the bodies of five of them.

When she got married, Djuka had to shoulder the responsibilities of another household. Milutin Tesla, following the advice of some Greek philosophers, insisted that "wherever a priest takes up a hoe, the idea of progress is dead."

Thus Djuka and the crossed-eyed servant Mane tilled the church land.

"Don't aim for where you're looking, but where you want to strike," she told Mane as he split firewood.

Mother explained to Nikola that the drone bee mated with the queen high up in the sky, and that there would be plenty of bees if the queen could escape the swallows. "The enemies of bees are swallows and hedgehogs."

Once Nikola fell and hit his forehead on a chair. Mother kissed his triangular head to make it better, caressed him, laughed, and quoted: "A strike liberates a spark from the flint, which would have otherwise despaired within it." When his stomach ached, she put her hand on his navel and started to chant softly:

Almighty God, what a great event,
When Milic the standard bearer got married ...
He couldn't find a girl to match his beauty
A great hero, he found a fault in each of the lasses
And he was about to forsake his marriage ...

The pain melted away and the boy felt very safe.

During the day, Djuka always wore a head scarf. Every morning, she got up two hours before anyone else. She sat in front of the kitchen stove with its door open. Nikola woke up and furtively observed her as she combed her hair. The fire glowed through the door and cracks of the stove. He spied ... Mother turned bronze from the glow. She became something else. He watched in secret.

His mother's life was deep.

Her life was soundless, like a tree falling in the forest without anyone to hear it.

The Trees

She turned to the forest on Bogdani Hill: "Can you hear it?"

"What?" said Nikola.

"Can you hear the trees talking to each other on Bogdani?"

"What about?"

"The birches sigh: How long till spring comes? When are we going to take off these icy shackles? e deep-voiced pines advise: Be patient. We'll take off our icy armor in three months. The streams will gurgle and you birches will sprout new leaves."

"What else do they say?" Nikola asked.

"The birches croon: The morning star will open the sun's gate and let the god Jarilo ride through it. Thus he will speak to Mother Earth: O moist Earth, love me, be my only one, and I, the sun god, will cover you with emerald lakes and golden sandbars, with green grass and swift brooks, with birds, fruit, and flowers, red and blue. Oh! You will bear me many, many children. With their new leaves, the birches will greet the rays of the spring sun and the gurgle of waters."

Nikola listened in awe and then laughed. "That can't be true. You're making things up."

His mother told him stories about plants instead of fables. She knew the herbs and insisted that many of them contained a spirit. Elm, fir, and maple belonged to the fairies.

"Where do fairies come from?"

"They come from the mrazovac," Mother replied. "That's why young men would never step on this plant. I'll teach you how to recognize it, so that you'll never step on it."

"Where do fairies live?"

"I've already told you what trees they dwell in. Yew is also a fairy tree. It grows only in unspoiled places," Djuka answered.

Nikola continued with the game. "How long do they live?"

Mother shrugged. "They eat garlic seeds and live until life becomes too boring, and when this happens they quit eating and die a painless death."

Nikola was proud that Mother was so knowledgeable, as if she herself used to be a fairy. He never understood why Father frowned upon the stories about a world full of radiant spirits in which plants were just like people. At that time, Nikola did not comprehend that those stories were not just about fairies and plants but also about gods older than God.

"When there's no church around, you can pray under a fir or linden tree," Mother pointed out to Dane and Nikola.

She created the world, and then along came Father and cataloged it in books. Father wrinkled his nose at Mother's stories. He wondered how such myths could have survived in a family full of priests.

"Let it go," Milutin murmured. "Let evil go, and embrace the good. Let illness and misery go. Turn to health."


The Snowball

On the second day of Serbian Orthodox Christmas, Nikola and his two older cousins Vinko and Nenad slipped out of their parents' sight and went deep into the forest above Smiljan.

"The snow's really beautiful!" Nikola laughed.

"Beautiful, whatever ... It gets in my eyes," said Vinko.

Nenad snapped at snowflakes like a young dog.

They looked down at their feet. After the climb, it was hard to tell which one was the most winded.

Covered with icicles, the boulders looked like monsters. A deep silence reigned among the pines. From time to time, the wind moaned through the treetops and a heavy white burden fell off the branches. It was as if the forest were breathing.

The boys plowed deeper into the snow, and their feet became soaked. They pushed their hands against their knees to help them climb up the slope. They scrambled on a big boulder in the middle of a ravine, on top of which the wind played with drifting snow dust.

"We shouldn't go any farther if we want to get home before nightfall," Nikola announced.


Excerpted from Tesla: A Portrait with Masks by Vladimir Pistalo, Bogdan Raki, John Jeffries. Copyright © 2008 Vladimir Pistalo. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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