The spellbinding new novel from the award-winning author of The Caprices and A Carnivore’s Inquiry transports us to a mysterious world of deception, political intrigue, and desire. In the summer of 1963, American Rupert Brigg travels to Greece to collect classical pieces for his Uncle William’s art collection. Rupert’s first discovery, however, is that Athens is a shadowy place that hides a tangle of fork-tongued diplomacy and duplicitous women, a city of replicas and composites that, like a hall of mirrors, calls to question what is real and what is false. Journeying to the secluded island of Aspros, among a circle of artists and aristocrats, each with their own secrets, Rupert finds the very pieces he’s searching for, but can he escape the tragedy that ended his brief marriage? As beautiful as Rupert’s discoveries are, beneath the surface lurk rumors of insurrection, fabrication, and even murder. Seductive, compelling, and sly, Forgery is a sophisticated book about the value and meaning of art, love, and the corrosive power of grief.
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I will never be the sort of person to make a major contribution to mankind. That has never been my goal. I am not a creator, but a man of taste, and my story, like the story of civilization, begins with art. Who were we before art?
I think of our prehistoric cousins desiring to make a fire. The ape says, "I am cold, and my meal, less pulse, is exactly the same as before I ran it down." And perhaps this is the first instance of civilized humanity: a distinct encounter with dissatisfaction. Then the sparks ignite, and the ape casts his kill upon the flames — a willful transformation — and the ape comes out the other side of this experience warm, dining on ... what did they have then, woolly mammoths? Other apes? I'm not sure but, having cooked it, he's eating it, and the fire is leaping into his face, and his mate is sharing the feast, and the ape can finally say, "This is good." Because before that, there was no good. There was just the absence of food against the presence of food. No choice really, that, just hunger and certain death or satiety and survival. As a man, the ape can compare food to food. The creation of man is tied to the development of taste.
So here I have carried the ape to man. It all begins with art. Art is what gives man his soul. Man is man because he has an appreciation of what is useless. Recognition beyond death? Only man wants such a thing. The need to transform the blank walls of a cave into a narrative tapestry. The need to fashion the female form from the earth. The need to approach the inanimate bulk of solid marble and find himself within it: idealized, beautiful, immortal. Without art, we have no hope of discovering our divinity, our oneness with God.
Am I a believer? Someone to be avoided at cocktail parties? Not really. I tried to believe in God and, because of this, refused to follow the question all the way to its logical conclusion. I ended up someone who didn't want my questions answered, because of course there is no God, no heaven of cerulean skies and caftaned deities, but I live in the realm just short of this knowledge. I stop short and stay in the creation of trees, the creation of man, and then man creating back at his God — like an angry child — this canvas, this statue, create, create, create, because we are of God and cannot help ourselves. We are a circuit: us making the divine, and the divine making man. I will not pursue this question to its limit — its betrayal, its refutation — because I lost someone I loved and I need to believe in something. Maybe in science, a sort of art, and transference of energy. After all, where did he go?
How could I be left with nothing, left with — well, myself, an apartment, a street, shoes walking on it, rain that pounded through the most miserable of Aprils and into May. And into June. That rain that seemed to reach around the world and leave no one unmolested, bringing all of us creatures together in its grip, rain that gave voice to the gloom of space — space, space, and more space — within me, that hissed outside the window, that sang its timpani on the Dumpsters and trash cans of my neighborhood, that sent the homeless into dark corners tented beneath their soggy blankets: rain that only whiskey could improve. Whiskey turned its blue to a sort of glowing and acceptable amber.
And then one day I was packing my bag and, ticket in hand, was headed for the airport. Uncle William had said I needed a change of scenery. I was to travel to Greece, where it never rained in the summer, or only rarely. Once, he said, the sky had gone from brilliant blue to black, as if Zeus himself had carelessly stepped in front of the sun, and then a cloud tore open and a flood of raindrops the size of plums had clattered onto the marble of the alleyway, where the restaurant's tables were set up. And everything washed away, and everyone was wet and laughing.
"It wasn't raining like this, ever," he said.
I said, "I don't think it's just the rain."
He said, "Try to convince yourself that it is."
And I asked, "Why?"
And he said, "Because that we can fix."CHAPTER 2
I arrived in Athens on a Tuesday, a day unloved by Greeks, the day on which the Turks, back in 1453, had sacked Byzantium. Lucky for the Greeks, on this particular Tuesday, it was only me and they had nothing to fear. I felt more easy prey than predator. There was no one to meet me at the baggage claim and, although I know the intelligent thing to do would have been to wait there, I felt a need to keep moving. My first thought on exiting the terminal was that somewhere near, something had died and that the smell of rotted flesh hanging in the air, sweet and sickly, was, strange to admit, not unlovely.
The street that fronted the airport was flooded with traffic, tourist and otherwise. The sky was an even primary blue, not a cloud in sight. I idly watched a woman from the plane slip her bra strap up her arm. She had complained the whole trip over, New York to London, London to Athens. At first I'd sympathized with her husband, but this had turned to resentment when he hadn't shut her up. She led the way, the husband followed her, a mountain of luggage followed him, and pushing it along was a desiccated porter with a luxurious mustache.
"Can you believe the heat?" the woman said.
She was complaining again, as if this would suddenly make it cooler.
At first look, Greece was disappointing. There were a lot of Greeks milling around, but without some fantastic backdrop — the temple, cliffs, and sea of Sounion, for example — it wasn't that impressive. I felt bad for the Greeks. It was 1963, and although they'd managed to weather the last two thousand years, they had the bad form to let it show. Something in my Western education had encouraged me to view Greece as a beloved anachronism, a culture that, thus preserved, entered the modern age in England, and the space age in America, as the great baton of civilization got shuttled around. Greece should have been something I could go back and visit — Ancient Civilization Land — as if it were a pavilion at the World's Fair. But the architecture was all recent postwar-boom concrete and the music was the belch of misfiring engines and pragmatism. The people had been through a lot, and it showed in their shabby clothes.
My Uncle William's friend, Kostas Nikolaides, was supposed to pick me up. But he wasn't there, or he wasn't recognizing me, and I, certainly, had little hope of recognizing him. Uncle William hadn't seen Kostas Nikolaides in twenty years, at which point Kostas had been losing his hair. Uncle William thought he'd be completely bald by now, but his eyes would give him away. "He has blue eyes, not normal blue but blue like the Greeks have blue eyes." I had never known any blue-eyed Greeks. "Blue like the Aegean," said Uncle William, in an uncharacteristically poetic moment. "And he's loud."
Uncle William had originally traveled to Greece to see the sights. The Second World War had cut short his travel. In the mayhem following the Italian invasion, he had managed to escape, first to Alexandria and then — on board a British transport plane — to London. Over the years the escape aspect of the story — as well as the number of women who had hidden him, in a variety of surprising and predictable places — had increased exponentially. At any rate, the adventure was genuine. By the time he reached Boston, he had lost or sold all his belongings — clothes, silver brushes, books. Only two things survived: his love for everything Hellenic and a small Minoan statuette, a woman with her arms snapped off but with a beguiling expression and a stiff skirt that hung down like a cowbell. This was the foundation, the inspiration, on which Uncle William had built his formidable art collection. Uncle William called her the goddess and, despite the fact that I was of the opinion that the statue was at best overly restored — a composite of ancient pieces — and at worst a brazen fake, the goddess was responsible for sending me now to Greece. I was grateful to her and disinclined to expose her to too much scrutiny.
I wondered if my plane had arrived early. Perhaps Kostas was back at the luggage carousel, but my suitcase had been waiting for me when I got through immigration, and going outside had seemed like the right thing to do. My ears were blocked. I yawned and waggled my jaw and some sound was restored. I looked at my watch, still set to the time in New York. Athens was plus six hours. And what was the time of my plane's arrival anyway? I entertained myself by trying to decipher the signs on the buildings across the street. I'd only taken Ancient Greek and that had been in high school. It was fairly amazing that I remembered as much as I did. I realized that my lips were moving as I read.
Down the street a taxi pulled up. I began wondering if I should take a taxi. Then I began wondering where I would take it. I wondered if I'd end up in a hotel, then carried the scenario through to its extreme conclusion: I would spend a week in Athens, never managing to find Kostas, and after that I'd return to New York, having accomplished nothing. A man got out of the taxi; I considered flagging it down and decided against it. Then I heard someone calling my name from the opposite direction, and there was Kostas, pushing through the people and suitcases, and he was at my side.
"Rupert Brigg. Rupert!" he said. "I am Kostas Nikolaides." Kostas mopped his head, which, as predicted, was completely bald, making the shock of his blue eyes all the more brilliant. I set down my suitcase and he kissed me on both cheeks. "You are like your uncle, better looking, definitely, but with that same chin with the hole in it. How do you shave that?"
"With care," I replied.
"Ah, there he is!" A black Mercedes pulled up. It was polished to a brilliant sheen, but I recognized it as an early-fifties model, maybe ten years old. "My son Nikos is driving. How was your flight?"
"Fine," I said.
Nikos got out of the car and extended his hand. "I am Nikos." He took my suitcase and put it in the trunk.
"Sit in front," said Kostas. "I am fat, but don't mind sitting in the back."
I got into the car. Nikos, with a lot of honking, accelerated wildly to get away from the curb and then hit the brakes so we could do the five miles an hour that the traffic allowed.
"Were you waiting long?" he asked.
"Not long at all," I said. "Thanks for picking me up."
"Your uncle has told me that you won't stay in my house," said Kostas.
"I didn't want to be a burden. And my uncle says you're quite the host. He made it seem as if I'd never get anything done." I imagined myself doing something — sitting at a desk — but even in my fantasy the action was vague and suspiciously pointless.
Kostas shook his head. "I rented you a tourist place, which he said you wanted. But I said, 'When Rupert gets here, he will not want to be by himself.'"
Nikos said something to his father, something lilting and full of humor. He smiled, as if we shared a secret.
"Nikos picked out the room. It is right by Omónia Square with all the young travelers. Nikos likes to go walking with these crazy Americans, Swedes, girls walking all over Greece alone. They put on these boots, like Communists."
"They have their virtues," said Nikos.
The car picked up a little speed, but a half hour later we found ourselves stalled in a mass of vehicles. A gray billowing smoke obscured everything. I saw an old woman in a black scarf right in front of the car, then the smoke hid her and she was gone. Kostas covered his face with his handkerchief and I felt my eyes tearing up. I smelled burning rubber. The car crawled forward and I saw a flaming truck surrounded by people.
"As if it was not hot enough," said Nikos.
Kostas laughed and leaned forward, placing his hand on my shoulder. "And what are your first impressions of Athens?"
"Very nice," I replied.
The car began to move again, faster now, and a false breeze moved the air within it.
"How is your uncle?" asked Kostas.
"Enjoying his retirement. He's looking forward to traveling."
"But he sends you."
"And his regrets," I said. "Uncle William is planning a visit, but he was told to wait until after the November elections."
"Elections?" said Nikos, and laughed. "Papandreou will win."
"How can you be sure?" I asked.
"Because America wills it."
"My son is a cynic," said Kostas.
"Your son has his eyes open," said Nikos. "And you know this is true. But as usual, what is good for business, in your mind, is good for Greece."
"Would you give Greece to the Communists?"
There was some anger building here, but not much, since the conversation seemed to be an old one and the resolution not far off.
"Nikos here has no political affiliation. He can afford to be this way. He is young. But if I said that the Communists would take away his car, he would develop an affiliation. If I said that the Communists would create such mayhem that all the Swedish girls would not visit, he would have an opinion."
"Will you vote?" I asked.
"Yes," said Nikos. "At least twice."
And this made Kostas laugh.
The car ride took close to an hour, although nothing like the flaming truck was encountered again. We talked about the weather, hotter than usual for June, and Kostas pointed out buildings that had housed various relatives and restaurants at different times but now held nothing of interest except for these memories. Nikos worked for his father, but it was unclear exactly what he did. Something with the export end of things. Something that involved filling out forms and government agencies. I nodded and asked questions and understood nothing. Nikos asked me the square footage of my apartment in New York, how many bathrooms it had, whether or not I employed a servant, and what the rent was. I asked him if he'd had his suit made or if it was off the rack, whether it was all wool or a synthetic blend, and what he'd paid for it.
"Is this what you young people talk about?" asked Kostas.
And this made me laugh because I was thirty years old and Kostas was right to be critical.
"We're almost there," said Nikos.
The buildings were now older, more graceful, and shoved up against one another, the narrow roads barely passable. I saw a small chapel rise out of a sidewalk, a balcony filled with caged birds, boys in shorts shouting at each other. I was still feeling the occasional rise and dip of the airplane. I lit a cigarette and was in a peaceful mindless state, hypnotized by some new argument between Kostas and Nikos, a music of disagreement, when Nikos cut the engine.
"We are here," he said.
Kostas threw up his hands. "Don't you eat?"
"This is our house." said Nikos. "You want a shower. I know how the American thinks." Here Nikos tapped his head with his forefinger. "But I don't agree. You need a drink. We have ouzo — and wine, of course," he said, pushing the door open, "but I got some beer. For you."
"That's very considerate," I said.
Nikos said something to his father, who nodded and went in. I could hear him yelling and the voice of a woman responding.
"I want to show you something," said Nikos. "Just the end of the block."
I followed. At the end of the street a view presented itself, a river of air through the banks of the houses. I followed the space. There was a rise, a cliff of stone, and I realized what I was looking at. The Acropolis stood in the distance, silent, stately, decayed.
"Well?" said Nikos.
"It's the Acropolis."
"This is the best way to see it, from a distance. Like everyone, you will want to go walking around, but when you get close it's not that great. You see one column. You don't see the mountain. And it's hot as hell. All the good sculpture gone, in England or wherever."
"Why go there at all?"
"Athens is a terrible place," said Nikos. "You know we are from Constantinople."
"Yes. Uncle William told me that."
"You can't live in the past," said Nikos. Nikos rested his hand on my shoulder and steered me back down the street. "You like old things. You are an archaeologist."
"Not exactly," I said. "My background is in art history."
Nikos seemed surprised. "A professor?"
"No. I worked at an auction house, and now I suppose I am an art dealer, an art supplier, but I haven't dealt anything yet. Or supplied it," I said.
"Soon enough," said Nikos. "My father is a businessman. He will not be able to talk about other things for long. We will go have lunch. He will say things about the Turks, the Communists, but always he is counting the money in his head."
I was momentarily dizzy.
"Are you all right, Rupert?"
"Yes," I said. "Yes. But this is incredible. Here I am on a street in Athens with" — I gestured dramatically over my shoulder — "the Acropolis at my back."
Nikos smiled. "I have the Acropolis at my back every day. Every Greek has the Acropolis at his back. What I want to know" — he raised his eyebrows — "is what is at the front."
"You are a philosopher," I said.
Nikos laughed. "I have been called many things, but never that." We began to walk. "My father already has tomorrow planned."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Forgery"
Copyright © 2007 Sabina Murray.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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