By John Banville
Published by Knopf
March 2003; 0375411305; 256 pages
speaks? It is her voice, in my head. I fear it will not stop until I stop.
It talks to me as I haul myself along these cobbled streets, telling me
things I do not want to hear. Sometimes I answer, protest aloud, demanding
to be left in peace. Yesterday in the baker's shop that I frequent on
the Via San Tommaso I must have shouted out something, her name, perhaps,
for suddenly everyone in the crowded place was looking at me, as they
do here, not in alarm or disapproval but simple curiosity. They all know
me by now, the baker and the butcher and the fellow at the vegetable stall,
and their customers, too, hennaed housewives, mostly, plump as pigeons,
with their perfume and ugly jewellery and great, dark, disappointed eyes.
I note their remarkably slender legs; they age from the top down, for
these are still the legs, suggestively a little bowed, that they must
have had in their twenties or even earlier. Clearly I interest them. Perhaps
what appeals to them is the suggestion of the commedia dell'arte in my
appearance, the one-eyed glare and comically spavined gait, the stick
and hat in place of Harlequin's club and mask. They do not seem to mind
if I am mad. But I am not mad, really, only very, very old. I feel I have
been alive for aeons. When I look back I see what seems a primordial darkness,
scattered with points of cold, hard light, immensely distant, each from
each, and from me. Soon, in a few months, we shall enter the final decade
of this millennium; I will not live to see the next one, a matter of some
regret, the previous two having generated such glories, such delights.
of these vagaries. I am going to explain myself, to myself, and to you,
my dear, for if you can talk to me then surely you can hear me, too. Calmly,
quietly, eschewing my accustomed gaudiness of tone and gesture, I shall
speak only of what I know, of what I can vouch for. At once the polyp
doubt rears its blunt and ugly head: what do I know? for what can I vouch?
There exists neither "spirit," nor reason, nor thinking, nor consciousness,
nor soul, nor will, nor truth: all are fictions . . . So the crazed philosopher
declares, swinging his mighty hammer. Yet the notion haunts me that I
am being given one last chance to redeem something of myself. I am not
speaking of the soul, I am not that far gone in my dotage. But there may
be some small, precious thing that I can buy back, as once I bought back
Mama Vander's silver pill-box from the pawnbroker's. It occurs to me to
wonder if that might have been your real purpose, not to expose me and
make a name for yourself at all, but rather to offer me the possibility
of redemption. If so, you have already had an effect: redemption is not
a word that up to now has figured prominently in my vocabulary. But then
your motives were never clear to me, no more, I suspect, than they were
to you. Perhaps you did indeed betray me, and someday soon a publication
will pop up from the presses in an obscure corner of academe with a posthumous
essay in it, by you, on me, and I shall be disgraced, laughed at, hooted
out of the lecture hall. Well, no matter.
Axel Vander is an old man, in ill health, recently widowed, a scholar renowned for both his unquestionable authority and the ferocity and violence that often mark his conduct. He is known to be Belgian by birth, to have had a privileged upbringing, to have made a perilous escape from World War IItorn Europehis blind eye and dead leg are indelible reminders of that time. But Vander is also a master liar (I lied to lie), his true identity shrouded under countless layers of intricately connected falsehoods. Now a young woman he doesnt know, and whom he has dubbed Miss Nemesis, has threatened to expose the most fundamental and damaging of these lies. Vander has agreed to travel from California to meet her in Italyin Turin, city of the most mysterious shroudbelieving that he will have no difficulty rendering her harmless.
But he is wrong. This womanat once mad and brilliant, generous and demandingwill be the catalyst for Vanders reluctant journey through his past toward the truths he has hidden, and toward others even he will be shocked to discover.
in all of his acclaimed previous novelsJohn Banville gives us an
emotionally resonant tale, exceptionally rich in language and image, dazzling
in its narrative invention. It is a work of uncommon power.
John Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland in 1945. His first book, Long Lankin, was published in 1970. Among his other books are Nightspawn, Birchwood, The Newton Letter, Mefisto, and The Book of Evidence (which was short-listed for the 1989 Booker Prize). He has also received a literary award from the Lannan Foundation. He is the former literary editor of the Irish Times and lives in Dublin.