Waiting for Columbus

Waiting for Columbus

4.0 9
by Thomas Trofimuk

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On a beautiful April morning, a man is brought to an insane asylum in contemporary Spain, claiming to be the legendary navigator Christopher Columbus. Found in the treacherous Straight of Gibraltar, he is clearly delusional and has suffered a trauma so severe that he has turned away from reality. As he spins the tall tales of adventure and romance of someone who


On a beautiful April morning, a man is brought to an insane asylum in contemporary Spain, claiming to be the legendary navigator Christopher Columbus. Found in the treacherous Straight of Gibraltar, he is clearly delusional and has suffered a trauma so severe that he has turned away from reality. As he spins the tall tales of adventure and romance of someone who existed in the late fifteenth century, the lonely Nurse Consuela can’t help but be enchanted by his spirit. Who is Columbus? Where did he come from? This dazzling story about one man’s painstaking search for truth and loyalty will haunt the reader long after the final page. 

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Canadian writer Trofimuk’s uneven novel begins with an inspired premise: a man claiming to be Christopher Columbus shows up at an insane asylum in contemporary Spain. Under the care of a nurse named Consuela, he begins to tell stories of Columbus’s adventures, remembering some and reliving others. It is interesting enough at first, but the blending of then and now gets tiresome and hokey (as when, after strenuous intercourse, Columbus watches TV). Also, Columbus is a voracious lover who speaks in purple prose about how much he loves women. The women, real and imagined, likewise find him irresistible. (Indeed, even Consuela falls hard for Columbus.) Meanwhile, Interpol declares the mystery man “officially suspicious” and dispatches an agent specializing in cold trails to track him down. Trofimuk never quite pulls together a cohesive narrative; the imaginings of a mentally unwell man hold some promise, but too many developments are murky and inexplicable. (Aug.)
Kirkus Reviews
A mysterious inmate in a Spanish asylum believes he's Christopher Columbus-and to complicate things further, his psychiatric nurse begins to fall in love with him. Trofimuk (Doubting Yourself to the Bone, 2005, etc.) creates all kinds of mysteries to surround the man brought to the Institute for the Mentally Ill in Seville: his perplexing appearance at the Strait of Gibraltar, his hallucinatory incoherence, but most particularly his resolute conviction that he's the famous explorer, ready to embark on a 15th-century adventure. As "Columbus" spins amazing tales of previous lovers and of his obsession with navigating to new worlds, Nurse Consuela Lopez is drawn into the force field of his personality. She finds herself intrigued, then fascinated and finally seductively attracted to this baffling figure. The first psychiatrist who tries to make sense of Columbus' situation fails miserably, but the more sensitive and intelligent Dr. Balderas works tellingly to figure out the mystery. Meanwhile, in a narrative that eventually converges with the story unfolding in Seville, Interpol investigator Emile Germain tries to track down the identity of the enigmatic "explorer." In a spasm of emotional complication, both Emil and the patient are attracted to Consuela. Dr. Balderas tries to make sense of Columbus' warped psychological state by explaining that he is "suffering from something we big-brained doctors call a dissociative break . . . Sometimes, when a patient is faced with an overwhelmingly traumatic situation and there's no physical escape, the patient will resort to going away in his or her head." It turns out that Balderas' intuitions are correct; Columbus has indeed experienced a traumathat has exerted psychic pressure on him to escape. The recovery of his original self is devastating to Consuela, for she has fallen in love with the persona of a 15th-century explorer, and when the mask falls, her Columbus vanishes. Moderately interesting, but not riveting.
From the Publisher
“One of those rare gems. . . . Trofimuk’s novel throws you for a loop, pulls you back, twists you around and opens your eyes to the world not just as it was, but as we find it.” —The Globe and Mail 

 “Riveting. . . . Provides an insightful glimpse into how we cope with untenable loss with a smart, immensely satisfying plot.” —The Tucson Citizen

“A memorable, unique tale of grief and how a shattered man can attempt to plummet over the edge of the Earth, only to find that a lifeline made of hope still tethers him to reality. Waiting for Columbus is a captivating discovery.” —Las Vegas Review-Journal
“Like Scheherazade, [Columbus] captures the reader’s heart—and the lonely Consuela’s—with the gradual unfolding of his alter ego’s efforts to get the necessary backing to sail across the vast unknown. . . . Stunning.” —The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, VA)

“Powerful. . . . A delicate but heady novel which will enthrall and captivate. . . . A bravura performance.” —The Edmonton Journal
“[Trofimuk] forced me to rush headlong through his story, reading it simply for pleasure. . . . If you give him the chance, prospective reader, Trofimuk will use his sorcery on you, too. He’ll steal precious hours from your life, which could be used for riding horses or volunteering for charity. He’ll make you ignore your family, and possibly even forget to feed your children. Worst of all, he’ll set you up with all these little details that you think are simply nice touches in the story, but are actually landmines planted in your subconscious, waiting to explode with pathos and beauty when you least expect it. So go ahead. Let Trofimuk steal your time and explode your head. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.” —Andrew Davidson, author of The Gargoyle
“A multifaceted story that never loses its vitality.” —BookPage

Waiting for Columbus is a riveting meditation on identity, loss, and the fragility of our own life stories. Thomas Trofimuk shows us that when it comes to love, we are all Columbus, setting sail on unknown waters, hoping we won’t come to an edge.” —Carolyn Parkhurst, bestselling author of The Dogs of Babel and Lost and Found

“Thomas Trofimuk just keeps getting better and better. . . . Deliriously imaginative and heart-wrenching. . . . With his utterly gripping plot and characters, Trofimuk moves elegantly from the poetic to the mundane. . . . Unforgettable.” —Alberta Views
Waiting for Columbus should add to [Thomas Trofimuk’s] reputation as an engaging storyteller, thanks to its fully developed characters and engaging plot.” —Winnipeg Free Press
“The Columbus that Trofimuk creates is both fascinating and intensely likeable. . . . An impressive work, masterfully blending the history of Columbus with a real-world mystery.” —Maclean’s
“A wonderfully engaging study of love and loss.” The Sunday Post (London)
“Stunningly lovely and deeply moving, difficult to put down and most welcoming to pick up. . . . Unforgettable.” The Owen-Sound Sun Times

“What a wonderful, mad mongrel of a book—part mystery, part passionate romance, part postmodern historical romp in the spirit of Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers and Douglas Glover’s Elle. . . . The hero of Thomas Trofimuk’s Waiting for Columbus is, like all storytellers, a seducer—and so is the author himself. His compassion, intelligence, shrewd humor, and taste in wine make for an irresistible read.” —Steven Heighton, author of Afterlands

“An imaginative and authentic hybrid of romance, mystery and historical novel, with bits of War on Terror-era political analogy thrown in . . . [that] will have readers gripped.” The Catholic Herald (London)

Waiting for Columbus by Thomas Trofimuk is a compelling read, a tale very well told. The idea that a mental patient convinced he is Christopher Columbus is so persuasive in the role that he has others convinced in is a masterstroke. Trofimuk’s story is imaginative and realistic, fueled by an epic mystery, and the ending surprise is both shocking and deeply moving. From beginning to end here, we are in the hands of a gifted storyteller.” Selden Edwards, author of The Little Book

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
9.50(w) x 6.54(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Sevilla Institute for the Mentally Ill

Sevilla, Spain

The passage from freedom to incarceration is never an easy one. The passage from an unacknowledged, untested sanity to a diagnosed insanity is equally problematic. The first time Nurse Consuela Emma Lopez entered his world, it was with nervousness—with the trepidation of a sparrow pecking the ground a few meters in front of a perfectly motionless cat. He was immobile on a bed in the admitting area, restrained and drugged. He'd arrived at the institute kicking and screaming.

Consuela heard the shouting, wondered who it was and what it was that had him so upset. She could have written this off as just another ugly and loud admittance in a long string of ugly and loud admittances. But the sound of someone in pain or distress always gets through to her heart. The sound of this man's voice caused her to pause, to look up from her work and ache a little. The timbre of this particular voice vibrated in her. She cared, immediately. This is not something she likes about herself. Not that there's anything wrong with caring. It's a good quality for a nurse. It's just that she wishes she were tougher, more thick­skinned.

Consuela almost tiptoes into the room—silently but not so timidly as to suggest she is uncomfortable in the admitting room. The lights have been dimmed and a curtain drawn around his bed. They've drugged him, she thinks, and they're waiting for the drugs to kick in. She peeks through a slit in the curtain. It's difficult to say how old he is but she would guess thirty­five, maybe thirty­eight, despite the graying-verging-on-white hair. He has a kind, narrow face but he's obviously been through something, some sort of trying experience, an ordeal of some kind. There are bags under his eyes, and there are scratches—some deeper than others—across his forehead. His jaw has been bandaged.

Consuela finds his chart hanging on the far wall. She flips it open and finds an exercise in ambiguity. Scant details about where he was found. The words "Strait of Gibraltar" and "Palos." No name. A notation on the sedative he'd been given—a hefty dose of Rohypnol. And a number.

Nurses talk. They tell stories at coffee. Two hours earlier a black van had arrived and out climbed three members of the National Police Force with the new patient wedged between them. They delivered him, wrapped tightly in a straitjacket, to the admitting area. His clothes were bloodstained, his shirt ripped. Despite the restraints, he was wild. He'd broken the nose of one of the policemen with a lurching head butt to the face. They'd said something about his name being Bolivar and that he'd been found in the Strait of Gibraltar. "In the strait?" a nurse asks. "Surely you mean near the strait?" The policeman looked at her with dehumanizing, flat disdain, signed the papers that were thrust toward him, dropped the pen on the counter, and departed quickly. It seemed that the transport and handoff of this patient had been a trying experience for these men. They were glad to be rid of him. Consuela saw them as they were leaving—remembers thinking they were very serious, severe—if they'd had clowns in both pockets of their trousers, they wouldn't have smiled. They reminded her of her ex. The black, stiff uniforms. Those intensely earnest faces. The type that follow orders unquestioningly.

• *

When Bolivar opens his eyes two days later, he is calm and seems rational. He's restrained in the bed and there is still one policeman outside in the hallway—just in case. The guard sits straight in a wooden chair to the left of the door. He checks identification badges of everyone who enters, makes a note on his clipboard. This is Consuela's fifth time in, and the guard barely looks at her.

"Que dia es este? Por favor." The new patient stares at Consuela. His voice is demanding, almost commanding. It's a voice that is perhaps used to giving orders. His head is lifted and he's trying to see what it is that's keeping him down in the bed.


"Que dia es este? What day is it?"

"It is Sunday," Consuela says.

"Sunday? What date?" He pulls at his wrist restraints, still checking.

"Sunday, the fourth day of April."

"April? You mean August. Where am I?" He flexes against the ankle restraints.


"How did I get here? What happened to me?"

"You were brought here—" She stops. What exactly can she tell him? She's not sure.

"I was in Palos. It all went sideways. There were two girls. Are they all right? Everything went horribly wrong . . ." But his voice trails off as if he is slowly finding the answers to his own questions.

"I was in Palos. I remember broken glass. People shouting. The ships were in the harbor." He stops. He looks at her with such expectant eyes. "And?" he says. "And?"

What did this man want? And what? What is he looking for? What was he expecting to hear? Consuela shrugs and looks at him hopefully, looking for help.

"Why am I tied to this bed? I'm perfectly fine. My ships, though. Have they . . . have they sailed?" He's irritated. Yanks at the wrist ties.

"Ships?" She's thinking she should probably not say any more. There ought to be doctors here. The psychologists at this asylum are some of the best in the world. In the institution's lengthy history, they'd had people from all over Europe as patients—even a couple of kings and a few wayward princesses called this place home for brief periods of time. This is one of the first asylums in the world to actually attempt to help the mentally ill—to get at the root cause of an illness. When it first opened, ­so-­called treatments in other parts of Europe were still muddled in the casting out of devils or burning people or drowning them as witches—remarkably final and fatal cures—when the Sevilla Institute was actually caring for the mentally ill. This place, this hospital of innocents, had been a relatively safe haven for many, many years.

"I'll get a doctor," Consuela says, turning.


She stops.

"Get me a phone," he snaps. "I want to make a call."


"A phone, damnit. Look, I am Columbus. Christopher Columbus. I know the queen, the queen and the king. They can vouch for me. I am to lead three ships across the Western Sea. We've got a deal, damnit! Just get them on the phone."

Whoa, she thinks. Consuela can hear the earnest certainty of his voice. He believes what he's saying. "You want to fall off the edge of the Earth?" Consuela is performing her own little experiment. "You want to die?"

"You don't believe that. Nobody but a simpleton would believe that old wives' tale. Try not to underestimate my intelligence and I'll do the same for you."

"I'll let Dr. Fuentes know you're awake."

"Yes, let your doctor know that I'm hungry, and I have to piss, and I'm not crazy."

She shuts the door—the click echoes in the stone hallway. Consuela walks past the admitting desk and around the corner to Dr. Fuentes's office. She knocks on his door. Waits. Knocks again.

The door squeaks open, slowly. "Yes. What is it?" He says this with the proclivity of someone who has been doing something frustrating and this intrusion is the icing on the annoyance cake. Dr. Fuentes is a tall, ­clean-­shaven man who is a fastidious bureaucrat. He's just been appointed chief of staff at the institute. Consuela is honestly uncertain about his skills as a doctor.

He holds the door open with one hand and fumbles with his lab­coat buttons with the other. The sound of a chair scraping on a tiled floor comes from inside the office.

"Patient 9214 is awake." Consuela decides she does not want to know who else is in there. Damnit! She hates stuff like this—office politics. Knowing the human contents of Doctor Fuentes's office would put her in the middle of something. There was no scraping sound, she tells herself. It was nothing. There was no scraping.

"Thank you." The doctor releases the door but catches it immediately. "Wait. Is he still sedated?" She nods. Fair enough. There was no way to know for sure if this new patient was going to explode again or if he was done.

• *

Consuela wakes up at her usual time, 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. She's intrigued. Regardless of his ranting, she liked the color of his voice. It sounded like burnt sienna, and at the bottom, the color and texture of fine sand.

She does not work today, and so she grinds the coffee beans, boils water, and makes a leisurely French press. She pushes the kitchen window open and is immediately aware of the difference in the quality of air. It never really cooled off overnight. The air­conditioning in her flat is now at cross­purposes with this open window. The warm, dry air pushes up against the cool, forced air of her apartment.

She's been moving around her apartment, waiting for sunrise on the Guadalquivir. This riverside flat has been her home for six years and sunrise is one of the benefits. She loves her mornings with the fine, dusty­orange color inching its way up her walls. This apartment came with a wall of bookshelves in the living room, which Consuela had no problem filling. She added two more stand­alone shelves in her bedroom. She pauses this morning in front of a row of her to­read books—books she's bought because of a review, a mention in another book, or a recommendation, or because the cover spoke to her. She pauses at Calvino's Invisible Cities. She runs her finger down the spine of Riddley Walker. She tilts a book called Tropisms and the Age of Suspicion by Nathalie Sarraute as if to slide it off the shelf—this was a recent addition, found in a bookstore in Madrid, bottom of a pile, hideously ugly cover but there was something about the title. She eventually picks Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. But decides mornings are not for starting novels. She takes the Bulgakov into her bedroom—places it on the bedside table.

In the kitchen, she opens the newspaper and immediately wants a cigarette. The coffee, the newspaper, and the time spark a memory of smoking. Four years of not smoking and still the cravings come. Less frequently now, but still. Consuela performs a mental checklist of the places where she's stashed cigarettes in the past. Ridiculous because her stashes have long since been pillaged or abandoned. She knows, positively, there are no secret stashes of cigarettes in her flat. But she remembers where they used to be.

The sparrows are playing in the orange trees and palms along the river. Flirting with the dark river, thrilled at the prospect of light, as if they have the most ridiculously brief memories and sunrise is always an excited surprise. Do birds remember days? There are no clouds in this pink­tinged, predawn sky. It will likely be another blistering hot day.

It seems the front section of her newspaper is always about bombings and killings and scandals. The ramifications of bombings and killings. Accusation of scandals, and the fear of more actual bombings. Consuela flips to the entertainment section where there are movies, some stupidly violent and even one about bombings—this makes her smile a bit—but for the most part, the news here is pleasant. In fact, it's not really news at all.

Consuela pushes the ­French-­press plunger and pours herself a mug of coffee. She looks across the river, across the city, and wonders what it was like five hundred years ago, before the New World was discovered by Europeans, before Columbus sailed out of Palos. Why would this new patient go there? Why Columbus? Why not Genghis Khan or one of the Roman emperors, or keeping with Spain, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, or Ferdinand of Aragon? Christopher Columbus doesn't seem like much fun. Obsessed with the prospect of discovery. Desperate for people to believe him. Pigheaded to the point of ignoring all those absolutely correct scholars who repeatedly told him that China was too far—that he'd never make it. Not fun.

She takes a big gulp of coffee. Ah, we don't pick our delusions, she thinks.

Consuela can't tell if she actually knows about Columbus, or if she's simply half recalling the Hollywood renditions of Columbus from the movies about him.

"God, I could use a cigarette," she says to the sun as it pushes its way onto the river, into the sky, and splashes yellow into her eyes.

• *

Consuela wasn't at that first meeting, but she could see the change in her patient. Columbus went from lucid and slightly outlandish to frenzied and implausible—from conversational to incoherent. Must have been a hell of a session. Afterward, it seems he truly went mad inside a steady, overprescribed lineup of sedatives and antipsychotics, some of which were so obscure that Consuela had to look them up. They threw everything and anything at Columbus to keep him quiet, harmless, and sedate. Columbus refused to wear clothing. At most, when in the hallways and gardens and courtyards, he wore a robe. He just didn't care. In his room, he was naked, always. He spent days and weeks as a drooling idiot in a corner of his room, slumped over and muttering to himself. He would stare at the stone wall, rock back and forth, and mutter, "Ships to sea. Ships to sea. This is me. This is me. Ships to sea! Me! Me! ME!" This became his mantra—this, and his constant inquiries as to what day it was. The passage of time was important to Columbus. He was diligent about it—obsessive. Even when he was hazy on some new adjustment to his meds, he found a way to know what day it was and how long he'd been at the institute.

The orderlies dreaded going into this cell. Room. They dreaded going into this room. Dr. Fuentes insists his staff call the cells rooms. They're far more like cells than rooms, but the doctor is the boss. Patient 9214 was crafty and fast. Further, he hadn't weakened. At least, not physically. When they had to get in to clean or check on Columbus, Consuela would dope him up on as much diazepam as she could safely administer. Even then, while slower, he was still dangerous. He was always good for one crazy lunge or kick. There were times, in the weeks following his arrival, when Consuela had to swallow fear as she looked at him; she had to will herself to be calm, to breathe with long, even inhalations. She remembers being scared silly.

Meet the Author

Thomas Trofimuk is a writer, editor, and communications consultant. His poetry and short fiction have been widely published in Canada to critical acclaim. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, with his wife and daughter.

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Waiting for Columbus 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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houxhobbit More than 1 year ago
Consuela is a nurse at an insane asylum in Sevilla, Spain. When a man is brought in who insists that he is Christopher Columbus she is curious about who he is and what would cause him to break from reality so. His is a wonderful story teller and as she listens to him tell his stories, Consuela finds herself falling in love with a man who, is some ways doesn't exist. Through his stories the book moves from modern day to historical day. Sometimes Columbus slips up and brings modern day tecnology into his historical stories. Unknown to consuela an interpol agent is searching for a missing man who is thought to be suspiicious. I thought this was a wonderful book and I have recommended it to many readers.
debbook More than 1 year ago
A man is found washed up on the Spanish shore of the Strait of Gibraltar. He insists that he is the legendary Christopher Columbus and is taken to an insane asylum in Seville. Consuela is a nurse at the asylum and the man who calls himself Columbus tells her his memories/stories. But his stories seem to be mixed in with modern life. Emilie works for Interpol and begins tracking a missing man that has been declared suspicious. As he tracks his mystery man, Columbus enthralls Nurse Consuela with his stories and she begins to fall in love with him. my review: I loved this book, it was so well-written and beautiful. I would read just a couple of chapters a day as I really wanted to savor this amazing work. As Columbus tells his tales, one can feel how haunted this man is and as he nears the end of his stories, his fear of what he will discover about himself, if he lets go of his conviction that he is Columbus. The author moves back and forth from the the fifteenth century Spain to the present and while some may not like that kind of writing, I felt that it was perfect for the story. It is hard for me to review this book and do it justice. But once I finished it, I understood why Rebecca from The Book Lady's Blog could not stop raving about this book on twitter. Let's just say it is amazing, touching, thought-provoking, amusing, compelling, and brilliant and leave it at that! my rating 5/5 http://bookmagic418.blogspot.com/
Frisbeesage More than 1 year ago
Waiting for Columbus is the story of a man in a mental institute in Spain who believes he is Christopher Columbus. Since he was pulled out of the Strait of Gibraltar, who he really is and how he came to be there is unknown. As the staff at the institute try to unravel his story he slowly begins to charm them, reveling a compelling intelligence. He tells tales of Columbus' life to his lovely and devoted nurse Consuela until the tales start to lead gradually into his own. Also in Spain is Inspector Emile Germain searching for a mysterious man who disappeared from the scene of a crime. If you believe, with every fiber of your being, that you are Christopher Columbus, does that make it true? How do you know when you are sane, or not? Waiting for Columbus is a well-written character study on the insane and the people who work in mental institutes. The people in the book are infinitely human and it is possible to imagine yourself in their situation. Heartbreaking as the story is, yet it is filled with gentle, sometimes pointed humor. The places where Queen Isabella collides with modern day are very funny and provide some good comic relief to the intensity. I listened to the audio version of this book, beautifully read by Grover Gardner.
Kataman1 More than 1 year ago
Reading this book I was reminded of a similar book I read by Timothy Findlay called "Pilgrim." In that book a man in a mental hospital is treated by Karl Jung and remembers past lives as famous historical figures. In this book a man in a mental hospital in Spain claims to be Christopher Columbus. The hospital also has a woman who claims to be The Pope. Columbus is very amiable and his nurse Consuela takes an immediate liking to him. She is fascinated with his dreams and other tales of how Columbus met Beatriz and got his ships. Consuela starts checking the information given by Columbus on the Internet and finds everything to be fairly factual (note: the author obviously took great pains in doing research and should be highly commended for that). She obviously finds Columbus attractive and must wrestle with her own conscience which tells her it is morally and professionally wrong to get involved with one of her patients. In the meantime Emile, a police officer is investigating a crime that seems to point to the mental patient Columbus as a prime suspect. I really enjoyed how the author presents details of Columbus' history in a very interesting fashion. He could have done a very effective historical novel on Columbus too. This book drew me in from the start. One of the drawbacks in the history is the talk about the people believing that you would sail off the end of the flat Earth if you sailed west. The current concensus seems to be that the whole flat Earth thing originated in a Washington Irving novel about Columbus published in the 1800's and was not really fact.
BabsBonMots More than 1 year ago
A sensual kind of novel that was easy and enjoyable to read. A man is brought to an institution, he truly believes he is Christopher Columbus. He tells wonderful stories with a charisma that draws people to him. He tells stories of his desire to find the new world, stories of women he has made love to and how that loving feels, stories of his doubts. Are the stories real and true, or are they lies? Like Consuela in the novel, you will begin to fall for Columbus yourself!