A graduate student at Yale University, Helmut Sanchez has discovered an ugly truth about his boss, a world-renowned German professor. In a letter written more than fifty years ago, Professor Werner Hopfgartner absolved Austria of any guilt for its participation in the Second World War.
What kind of sick mind would rationalize away the murder of millions of Jews, gypsies and other subversives, Helmut wonders. And how can it be that he has been helping, and even admiring, such a person? As the young researcher continues his quest for answers, he uncovers something even more horrific, something that fuels a dangerous obsession for justice—and a murderous plan.
But he isn’t the only one who hates Hopfgartner. Regina Neumann, a colleague in the department, is determined to nail the aged scholar for his sexual involvement with young co-eds, something everyone knows about but ignores. And there are former lovers and the students he has taken advantage of. Award-winning author Sergio Troncoso has penned a suspenseful novel that explores right and wrong, good and evil, and the murky borders in between. Ultimately, we are left to ask: what is the nature of truth?
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About the Author
Sergio Troncoso grew up in Ysleta, a community on the east side of El Paso, Texas. His first book, The Last Tortilla and Other Stories (Arizona, 1999), won the Premio Aztlán and the Southwest Book Award. He currently teaches a fiction writing workshop at Yale University during the summer. He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
The Nature of Truth
By Sergio Troncoso
Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2003
All right reserved.
Chapter One HELMUT'S THROAT tingled. His maroon cotton shirt was soaked at the shoulders and sleeves. Outside, New Haven had finally crossed the threshold into spring with a breeze warm enough for the skimpiest of jogging shorts. Helmut Sanchez searched his pant pockets for another fresh paper towel. His throat quivered. Suddenly he couldn't breathe. He sucked the dense air of his office, and coughed a wave of gagging, unstoppable coughs. He popped a Ricola lemon-mint drop in his mouth.
There was a knock at his door. The knob was already turning before he looked up. He just wanted to be alone for a day. See the old man. Then go to the library.
"What are you doing here? " Ariane Sassolini asked, standing in front of Helmut's desk, one hand cradling a stack of manila folders. Her big brown eyes blazed. She even looked severe with her dark brown hair in a braid. "I knew you weren't going to listen. You're so stubborn."
"I need to finish this. I just can't stay home with a cold. I'm fine, really," Helmut said. He wiped his nose on his index finger.
"Just look at you. You should be home in bed."
"After this, I'll go home. Don't have sick days anyway."
"Hah! Knew you were going to say that. I checked. You've never taken a sick day in two years."
"OK, so I'm a liar. But Hopfgartner needs to check-"
"Fuck Hopfgartner," she interrupted in a low and deadly voice, pushing the door closed behind her. "Let him wait a couple of days until you're better. Go home. Please."
"Just this on Thomas Bernhard. Then I'm done for the week," he said. His nose felt like it was glowing with fire. Dry paper towels chafed his skin raw. Helmut wiped his nose with his hand again and, underneath his desk, smeared the clear slime over his palms.
"Helmut, I want you to go home. Hopfgartner's your boss, not your master," she said loudly.
"That's very nice." He was too weary to bite back with any real force. Maybe two months ago he would've told her to leave him alone, to get the hell out of his face. Maybe two months ago he would've ignored her. But not now. Ariane Sassolini had gotten under his skin. He even felt ashamed when he yelled at her. She was good for him, simply like no other. And he knew she probably realized this too.
"You deserve it. You're killing yourself for this pervert. Please go home."
Helmut thought about this for a moment. Maybe he shouldn't have told Ariane about the March "midterm" he had overheard the professor administer to one of his prettier students last week. An excruciating, two-hour exam, as it were, with a bittersweet ending. Ariane was already familiar with Werner Hopfgartner's reputation. That didn't move her one bit. But Helmut's recalling of the escapade, blow by blow, that indeed had gotten a rise out of her. She was disappointed in him, as if her beloved Helmut, of all people, had been caught with a particularly grotesque pornographic magazine. Maybe she thought he was also a pervert for eavesdropping. She was really getting under his skin.
"OK," he said. "I'll go home as soon as I talk to Hopfgartner about Bernhard. OK?" Helmut wiped his nose. It was gushing.
"Thanks," Helmut said as Ariane blew him a kiss from the door. He smiled, but he just wanted to be alone. His head throbbed.
"Oh, here." She yanked the door open again as it settled to a close. "Almost forgot these. Stop wiping your nose on your hands." She winked at him and dropped a large clump of fresh tissues on his desk.
After Ariane left, Helmut thought about Professor Hopfgartner as a pervert. Sure, after a year of working for him, Helmut had finally discovered Hopfgartner's dalliances. And in a bizarre way, this discovery had encouraged Helmut to stay at Yale. Who wouldn't have appreciated the situation? A good job that paid you more than enough to live on. Easy research work, at least for a native German speaker with university training. And only twenty hours a week, more or less. Now, he also had a boss who had sex with undergraduate and graduate students in his office. It was an easy and an interesting job. Or so Helmut had thought a year ago.
But the professor's exploits had worn thin. Helmut started daydreaming about New Mexico again. He felt guilty about not visiting his mother. Then he had finally focused on Ariane and talked to her when he had picked up his mail in the main office of the German Department. She was definitely a pretty face. When she asked him out this past September, he expected nothing more than a little romantic tension between them. But then-after that first movie-she reached up and kissed him right on the lips. It was a shock. Her eyes didn't just beseech him; they took what they wanted. After a week, they were making love in her apartment, and he knew he was just keeping up with her lead. Helmut had not felt so good since he had boarded the transatlantic flight in Frankfurt, a week after his emotional university graduation. And now, here was the culmination of his own sweet weakness: Ariane was getting under his skin. He tried to fight it. He ignored it for a while and had fun. But today, it was right in his face. He was falling in love with this woman.
The easiest way to distract himself from feeling like another Odysseus mesmerized by a siren's enchantments was to plunge into his work for Hopfgartner. Helmut loved to wander through the stacks of Yale's Sterling Library and the New York Public Library. He began to ferret out even the most difficult requests of Professor Hopfgartner. The easy ones were contemporary articles in Literatur und Kritik and Neue Rundschau, a few newspaper clippings from Die Zeit, and interviews in Der Spiegel. Sometimes Helmut spent a couple of weeks in hot pursuit of a more esoteric volume. This was how he made a discovery: many academic bureaucrats are thieves and cowards. How often, in one library after another, had a particular volume been "lost" or a specific article ripped out? These were the real perverts, Helmut thought. Professor Hopfgartner was a sex maniac, but at least the old man wasn't skulking around the stacks with a box cutter.
In fact, Helmut had a certain amount of admiration for Werner Hopfgartner. True, the old man was a sexual predator. But he got away with it. Even the professor's marriage, to a nondescript Hausfrau cursed with a horrific Viennese accent, didn't hinder him. Wasn't there something to be said for an old geezer who didn't want to die quietly and gracefully, with all his trophies only in the past?
Helmut also reveled in the peace and quiet of reading for a living. He wasn't pressured to finish his summaries and rewrites beyond the vague deadlines the taciturn and moody professor blurted out from time to time. Helmut Sanchez measured the "reality" of a deadline by Hopfgartner's facial expression. If his astonished blue eyes appeared more immense than usual, his pink forehead bulging with three quivering ridges, then the deadline was as real as stone. Anything less and Helmut could take his time. As of late, Helmut had found himself not only finishing his work on schedule, but also looking up articles by or about Werner Hopfgartner. What better project could there be than this ancient Casanova?
It was also a matter of pride for Helmut. He saw the retinue of young Yalies at the professor's door. The graduate students in black from head to foot, the great pretenders. Their eyes dilated wildly, their faces severe, somebody's idea of authentic intensity. The younger undergraduates acted like excellent lap dogs: obsequious, at least clear about who possessed the real power. Helmut, if he could help it, would not be such a coward. He found out what the professor's interests were. He knew how to talk to the old man. Helmut Sanchez would not become a mere worker and servant. Once he started to make positive suggestions to his boss, it was clear the professor was pleased. Here was an intelligent research assistant with initiative, and without the beggar's slop and shuffle. And these nods of approbation were the only things Helmut wanted, no more, no less. That, and the ability to control his time.
Helmut cleared his throat and wiped his nose on a wad of tissue again and knocked on Werner Hopfgartner's door.
"Yes?" the professor said through the door.
"It's me, Professor Hopfgartner."
"Helmut. Please come in."
Helmut pushed the door open and stepped inside. The office was dark except for the professor's desk lamp shining on the papers in front of Hopfgartner's face. A smoky film drifted through the air. Helmut finally found the cigar on top of an ashtray, which rested on a row of books on a small shelf next to the professor's desk. One day, he thought, this old German is going to burn himself alive.
"Came for Bernhard," Helmut said quickly, standing directly in front of Hopfgartner's desk. He understood he wasn't meant to sit down unless it was explicitly suggested. Whenever he was asked to sit, it meant a new project, another major editing job, a detailed progress report on this or that.
"Here it is. I finished it this morning. I have only a few minor changes, Helmut. Hervorragend! Very good work. Excellently written."
"Thank you. I'm almost finished with Christa Wolf too. I should have something for you in a week or two," Helmut said, exaggerating. His voice sounded strange, as if he had been speaking inside a cavernous sewer. He jammed the wet tissue inside his pocket.
"Very well," Hopfgartner huffed, shifting his bulk in the chair. The professor looked like a giant water beetle attired in only the finest Harris Tweed. Not one wrinkle was on his forehead. Maybe Helmut could get away with only one more article before the summer break in six weeks. "Bernhard has to go out this week. That must be clear, Helmut. Eisenstein is already pestering me about it. You have his address, right?"
"Yes I do. This week. No problem. I'll do the corrections immediately and send it out," Helmut said.
He picked up his most recent draft of the Thomas Bernhard article and noticed only two red marks on the first page, but a lengthy note at the bottom. He sighed. Did he want another footnote? An entirely new section? It was time to start thinking about quitting. He could enjoy a summer in Cloudcroft, New Mexico, fishing in the mountains with his mother. Imagine the fat, old beetle pumping an undergraduate.
"Helmut, bitte. Ein Moment," Helmut heard just as he started for the door. "Have you already begun work on the Compilation?" Werner Hopfgartner shuffled through a stack of papers on his desk, not even looking at Helmut.
"Yes. I'm picking up more material from the library today," Helmut said, wiping his nose.
"Oh, excellent." Hopfgartner seemed pleasantly and genuinely surprised. "I've already made some commitments on this material and we need to have a first draft early next autumn. By the time I return from Switzerland in September," he said. Hopfgartner's bright blue eyes stared at Helmut without blinking, trying to pierce the facade of this precocious underling. "Es ist sehr wichtig."
"I'll do what I can."
"A first draft no later than the end of September."
"Over one hundred pages of written text. With the research and bibliography. I'll do the best I can on the Compilation," Helmut said tartly. He could finish the work in eight weeks, maybe six, if he put his mind to it. But why did Hopfgartner have to be such an asshole?
"I just want you to be clear about the importance of the Compilation. It will probably be my last major work before I retire."
"I understand. Professor, I also have something important on my mind." Turn the screws right through the black beetle's shell. See the tiny legs squirm until they freeze in trauma.
"Oh?" Now the great, astonished eyes were like gas flames.
"Well, I have been thinking of other possibilities for me. Here at Yale and beyond."
"But I enjoy working for you. I work hard and try to anticipate what you want. I like doing this research for you. I enjoy the hunt. I even thought of applying to graduate school one day."
"No doubt you would make an excellent graduate student. I would help you any way I can, of course." "Thank you very much. I'm sure your help would be indispensable. But I am happy here, most of the time. I also feel a responsibility to you since I know you only have one more year. I don't want to leave you out on a limb."
"Es ist klar. It would be difficult to replace you in such a short time. What can I do to keep you, my dear Helmut?" Hopfgartner asked.
"Well, I'm having difficulty making ends meet, professor. My rent goes up in June," Helmut said, his eyes downcast, so ready to receive his morsel from that beneficent beetle. He was lying, and maybe Hopfgartner could see right through him. But Helmut also knew he had the beetle by its little balls.
"You do deserve a raise, Helmut. No question about it. When was the last time I increased your pay?"
"Just over a year ago," Helmut said. "Ten percent."
"Consider it done. A fifteen percent raise this time. My endowment had quite a surplus last year. If I don't use it soon, the money's returned to the general fund. It should be no problem at all."
"Thank you, Professor Hopfgartner. And don't worry. I'll have the Compilation's first draft by September. I'll get to it right away."
"Danke schön. Oh, I almost forgot. Where is my mind today? A retrospective for the faculty club. Just ten or fifteen pages. You'll find my notes in here," Hopfgartner said, a slight smile on his face. "I need it by the end of next week." He handed Helmut a sheaf of yellow legal pad papers.
"OK," Helmut said, the pages almost burning his fingertips. Touché, you old bastard. Message received loud and clear.
Helmut closed the door to his office, plucked out a wad of tissues from his pocket, and cleared his nose with a gigantic snort. Ariane had it all wrong, Helmut thought. Hopfgartner wasn't a pervert. He was a hypocrite. A smart, hard-driving, even amusing hypocrite. Helmut dropped the Hopfgartner article he had finished reading the night before into his backpack.
Hopfgartner intended the Compilation to be a synthesis and expansion of his views about literature and philosophy. German culture in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the professor wrote, had achieved a community as distinct about the good and the right as that of classical Greece. What the professor's clear and convincing prose advocated, in an almost revolutionary tone and certainly with a poetic cadence, was the creation of a set of real community values. Then, and only then, would adherence to such values be authentic to a culture. Individuals in such an authentic society would become true human beings, the full potential of man. Anything less would be "fakery" or "decadence" or "the moral abyss of modernity" or "the bleakness of the soul." Modern society, the virtuous Hopfgartner concluded, was on the bleak and lonely road of pernicious individualism and nihilistic hedonism.
Before Helmut pedaled home on his old blue ten-speed, he filled out another search request for the interlibrary loan network. Jonathan Atwater had already mailed him a notice that a previous request, which Helmut had submitted a month ago, had finally arrived. He might as well pick it up today and see what the fuss was all about. In February, Helmut had been casting his net wide to retrieve even the remotest prospect for the professor's Compilation. But then Atwater had told him there were "difficulties" with finding these new requests. He had thought that odd. Anyway, Helmut had forgotten about these articles until the notice finally arrived in a crisp, new interoffice mail envelope. Now, after a month, Helmut had already pinpointed exactly what the professor wanted. Yet the old request would have to be dealt with. Atwater would give him the business for weeks if he didn't at least pick it up and pretend to use it.
Excerpted from The Nature of Truth by Sergio Troncoso
Copyright © 2003 by Sergio Troncoso. Excerpted by permission.
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.
What People are Saying About This
This unusually rich and finely crafted novel compellingly explores the many different ways --both good and bad-- that the desire for truth exerts its influence on us. A powerful and philosophically informed novel.
Professor and Chair, Department of Philosophy, Yale University
At the heart of this intricate novel is the story of a young man's unraveling as he resolves to avenge an atrocity. The philosophical subtleties and moral ambiguities of vengeance are not easily dramatized but Troncoso handles them with assurance. An ambitious and penetrating book.
author of A Violent Act, The Riverkeeper, and Big Sugar
Are Chicanos limited to rewriting that same story over and over again about where we came from and who we are? Sergio Troncoso has widened the field for all of us, writing a novel with a range and depth that is fearlessly consumed with issues of the mind. What a gutsy book!
author of The Magic of Blood, The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña, and Woodcuts of Women
With an acute eye for detail, Sergio Troncoso tells the story of how one man's search for truth turns into a nightmare, involving an entire community. Fast-paced and chilling, The Nature of Truth explores the outermost limit of moral certitude.
author of The Devil's Chimney
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a unique, different novel. Through drama, it points out a major philosophical failure of Dostoyevski's Crime and Punishment. Sometimes Troncoso's plot is too slow, but what he does accomplish far outweighs a few minor glitches in the narrative. When the story gets going, toward the second two-thirds of the novel, THE NATURE OF TRUTH metamorphoses into a thriller about philosophy, and a commentary of how contemporary society manipulates the truth, and even loses any sense of 'truth' along the way. An excellent accomplishment, any way you look at it.
I was surprised by how the questions in The Nature of Truth stayed with me long after I finished this book. I thought it was thought-provoking and controversial, which separated this novel from most of the books I have recently read. I loved it, and I hope this writer, Troncoso, keeps marching to his own drummer.
I thought the story about Helmut Sanchez was an incredible one. I know it's controversial, which might be the reason some do not like it. But personally, I thought it was an exciting read, and the moral questions it provokes are astonishing. Weeks after I've read this book I am still thinking about these questions
Early on, I kept getting signals to quit, but I continued reading hoping against hope that the story line and especially the believability would improve. That doesn¿t happen. The good point is that it does end. Take a hard look before wasting your time and money.