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Review of a Novel Salamander by Thomas Wharton

Categories: Novels

A Book Salamander by Thomas Wharton

Eric Korn discovers the search for the perfect book in Salamander by Thomas Wharton. The river of magical realism, which rises in Colombia or possibly Argentina, has lapped at toes around the world. At its worst, it means movies in which characters who were never alive turn out to have been unsurprisingly dead all the time; it means tarot and crystals and PhDs in Buffyology.

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But the European branch (which also goes back to Borges, honorary citizen of everywhere), with tributary waters from Prague and Arabia, has a distinct flavour.

The magical devices are not animals or spirits, but human and maybe divine: clockwork, magnets, books, geometry. In England, steam engines.

Salamander has all of these. I count it as European, though the author comes from Calgary. The main narrative is perfunctorily enclosed by opening and closing scenes in Quebec, in an exploded bookshop, on the eve of General Wolfe’s assault on the city, but I take this as a modest patriotic gesture; it is also the reader’s first and last view of a major character engaged in a quest for the Perfect Book, the ultimate, world-containing volume, which this wonder-tale records and likewise exemplifies.

The river of magical realism, which rises in Colombia or possibly Argentina, has lapped at toes around the world. At its worst, it means movies in which characters who were never alive turn out to have been unsurprisingly dead all the time; it means tarot and crystals and PhDs in Buffyology. But the European branch (which also goes back to Borges, honorary citizen of everywhere), with tributary waters from Prague and Arabia, has a distinct flavour. The magical devices are not animals or spirits, but human and maybe divine: clockwork, magnets, books, geometry. In England, steam engines.

Salamander has all of these. I count it as European, though the author comes from Calgary. The main narrative is perfunctorily enclosed by opening and closing scenes in Quebec, in an exploded bookshop, on the eve of General Wolfe’s assault on the city, but I take this as a modest patriotic gesture; it is also the reader’s first and last view of a major character engaged in a quest for the Perfect Book, the ultimate, world-containing volume, which this wonder-tale records and likewise exemplifies.

The Count asks Flood, who has a backlist of typographical curiosities, to produce the Eternal Book, which somehow contains all others. He offers two assistants: one of the porcelain automata, adapted for page-trimming, and a 12-fingered boy lute player, soon to be a whiz at setting type.

Irena, the Count’s daughter, is an expert navigator of this mechanical ocean. Won by Flood’s love-gift, a book of verse which carries her name in luminous ink in every blank space, she tells him the moment in the night when the restless movement of the furniture brings their beds within a stone’s throw or a lover’s leap. On their fourth assignation, Flood is trapped by the Count’s men and dumped in a dungeon. Here he keeps himself sane – or at least busy – constructing an imaginary printing press in his head and setting, day by sunless day, page by careful page, a minute gazetteer of every square micron of his cell. This is so consuming a pastime that he fails to notice the passage of many years, nor that the walls of his prison have fallen away. After a decade he is liberated by Pica, his and Irena’s daughter.

The Count is dead, Irena disappeared. Flood, his daughter, his press and his eccentric pressmen set off on the Count’s boat, a vehicle of steam and sliding panels and hiding places. They travel: to Venice for a fount of wizard’s type that knows what it wants to say; to Alexandria for ink; to China for a few reams of Finest Tortoise, a paper of fabled delicacy. At each place they have fabulous encounters, and in between they tell one another stories. There are pursuers, and pirates, and a pirate-taker turned outlaw. And so to London, where many matters are resolved.

All this might seem insufferably precious were it not for Wharton’s prose style, which is flexible, poetic, inventive and always lucid. Consider – or, rather, enjoy – his account of the island of Durge, whose people live buried up to their necks in black volcanic soil: at dusk, “yellow-eyed jackals come down from the mountain in hungry packs, and then the inhabitants of Durge, contorting their faces with desperate animation, begin a ceaseless prattle to which the jackals will patiently listen as though spellbound by every word. Some have memorised their chatter and numbly repeat the same litany night after endless night, while others, the more adventurous or forgetful, come up with a new stream of babble on each occasion. But woe to those whose tongues tire out…or who find themselves at a loss for words, for the jackals are quick to gather about the silent and eat their heads.”

Flood reflects that he lives in a time when “the world is beginning to drown in books”. The flood is now a tsunami, and prophets proclaim the imminent death of the non-electronic book; within the information business, noticeably, there is less of such talk, and a general recognition that portable text readers need a lot of development to match the flexibility of print. “Will I be able to take it into the bath?” Reader, it will be the bath.

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Review of a Novel Salamander by Thomas Wharton. (2019, Dec 10). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/review-of-a-novel-salamander-by-thomas-wharton-essay

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