The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch (2013) is quite a novel, quite an ambitious novel. Tartt writes here everything she knows about life and everything she knows about art, as well as about how they intersect, how the artist is inspired at one moment in time and how the viewer is inspired on seeing the same art 400 years later.

This work is about such a work of art, a classic portrait of a goldfinch, and how fate has put it into the hands of Theo Decker, the hero of this novel, when he is only thirteen. It has been put into his hands by a dazed and dying older man named Blackwell after a terrorist bomb has exploded in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The traumatized Blackwell believes he is saving the painting from a violent past in Europe.

The novel is not about the explosion, however. It is about the emptiness that that explosion leaves in the heart of Theo when his mother is killed in the same explosion. Indeed, she becomes so alive in even a few pages at the start of this novel—especially when he returns to their apartment after the explosion and keeps waiting for his mother to join him—that we feel the emptiness of a world without her and immediately understand how and why Theo feels so alone and disconnected. It is a situation I could relate to, having lost my own parents early, and so I identified with Theo and became fascinated by his story. How was this boy going to survive such a tragedy?

The result is a novel that evolves into three parts. The first part, and the most successful, follows an “orphaned” Theo as he is taken in by the Park Avenue family of his best friend, Andy. At first, the Seymour family takes pity on him, but his goodness earns their respect. He also calls on Blackwell’s partner Hobie, who repairs furniture in the couple’s antique store. But then he is wrenched out of this scene by the re-emergence of his gambling father, and I did not look forward to his move out west to his father’s unstructured life.

In a vividly described Las Vegas, Theo meets Boris, a mysterious, street-smart Polish/Russian youth who will become central to this story, as Theo moves from the disciplined household of his mother to an undisciplined world of alcohol, drugs, and adventure. Boris will become a force in this book, clever at persuading Theo to defy convention and take risks. But this vivid boy is too one-dimensional for me, seeming to serve the author as a means to advance the plot and never really changing as that plot advances.

The first part continues, as Boris persuades an unhappy Theo to return to New York, where he once was happy. Theo’s friend Andy has died, and so he turns to Hobie, who comes to trust him with more and more responsibility. But Theo has concealed one thing, that he still has the painting of the goldfinch. He has carried it, without telling anyone, from his mother’s apartment to the Seymours, to his father’s house out west, and now back to Hobie’s store. It seems to fill the gap left by the loss of his mother, and he is filled with guilt for hiding it, but is also afraid he will be punished if he turns it in.

This first part works, not least because the restoration and antique business of Hobie is so real. Which required considerable research by the author, but is worked in smoothly until we believe in Hobie and the business. In addition, Theo is fascinated by Pippa, a young girl who also survived the explosion. And who will be a love interest as elusive as the goldfinch itself.

But then part two jumps eight years, and Theo is a young man in charge of the business side of the antique shop. He becomes less attractive as a hero, however, and my identification with him is diminished. Because he sells restored antiques as real when he learns the shop is losing money under Hobie. He wants to save the shop, but does the end justify the means? My reservations are compounded, moreover, by a pharmaceutical addiction that Boris has encouraged, and that reflects Theo’s sense of guilt, because of both his financial activities and his continual possession of the Met’s missing painting. Equally worrisome is his pursuit of Pippa.

And now Boris returns, and the novel enters its third part, which is an adventure story. For Boris reveals he has deceived Theo. He has made off with the painting, and it is in Europe. But he has a plan to retrieve it. He will not tell Theo the plan, however, and its execution in Europe is confusing to the reader. It is suffice to say that there are meetings with mysterious men along with gunfire and death, as if Tartt has decided to forgoe the guilt and moral ambiguities of her story and to sustain reader interest with action.

I think this strategy is a mistake. The novel loses its depth and emphasizes its surface action. Proof of a missing potential seems to be in the final coda, as, a year later, Theo reviews what has happened to him, and comes to some interesting conclusions about life being short but often cruel, while both human love and the love of art can last forever.

Tartt describes the artist painting the goldfinch: “the brush strokes he permits us to see, up close, for exactly what they are—hand worked flashes of pigment, the very passage of the bristles visible—and then, at a distance, the miracle, or the joke…the slide of transubstantiation where paint is paint and yet also feather and bone.” And then, she continues: “It’s the place where reality strikes the ideal, where a joke becomes serious and anything serious is a joke. The magic point where every idea and its opposite are equally true.”

She continues, with Theo concluding: “I’ve come to believe there is no truth beyond illusion. Because, between where “reality” on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic. And—I would argue as well—all love.”

This is the exploration of art and the human awareness of love, that I wish this novel had treated once Theo’s guilt at retaining the painting has begun to trouble him. And not relied on the exaggerated character of a Boris who dominates both Theo and the action of this novel, and as a consequence the European finale that rightly belongs to another novel. (November, 2015)

Istanbul Passage, by Joseph Kanon

This 2012 work is superior Kanon, one of his best. It comes alive because of the moral issues that continually confront Leon Bauer, a businessman in Istanbul who accepts undercover jobs, jobs that support the Allied war effort, from an American named Tommy at the consulate. It becomes vividly alive also because of its vivid portrait of Istanbul in 1945, not only in the descriptive passages but also in the evocation of its history—a history that now includes the conflicting post-war interests of the Americans, the Soviets, and the Turks. Not to forget the Jews who came through seeking refuge in Palestine. It is even more intriguing because of a fascinating Colonel Altan, a cynical, and very European, member of the Turkish secret police.

The story begins when Tommy casually offers Leon one last job, to pick up Alexei, a Rumanian refugee who worked for the Germans in World War II and whom the Soviets wish to torture for information and the Americans wish to question. But all is not as it seems, and Leon is forced to assume responsibility for this potential war criminal and see that he reaches American hands. Indeed, the remainder of the novel revolves around this responsibility and Leon’s growing attachment to Alexei as he discovers the humanity in this suspicious and crafty man who has become a pawn in international intrigue. The novel’s moral complexity is intended from the start, for Leon obtains the help of Mihai to deal with Alexei—Mihai knows the local underworld because he runs the Jewish refugees to Palestine—and Mihai despises Alexei as one who persecuted the Jews back in Rumania.

It is Leon and Altan who are the most interesting characters. Leon because he is never quite sure what his actual responsibility is for Alexei and how far it goes; and because he faces a second moral quandary when he falls in love with Kay, the wife of an American embassy official, when he is himself already married. Indeed, he calls daily on his wife, who has fallen into a catatonic state after being traumatized by the sinking of a refugee ship carrying Jewish families to Palestine. In fact, the resettling of European Jews underscores the texture of this post-war period as well as the underground community of Istanbul, for it requires both pay-offs to Turks and a strategy to avoid the British blockade.

Colonel Altan underscores the political complexity of that period, as he must balance Turkish national interests, Istanbul police interests, and the interests of both the Americans and the Soviets. He acknowledges to Leon this balancing act, but not what he plans to do. And so, is he helping Leon or not; and is he plotting to turn Alexei over to the Americans or the Soviets? He is, indeed, a deceptive character, one who brings to mind the Claude Rains of Casablanca. In the end, it is he who controls the outcome, an outcome in which Kanon reveals a cynicism to match that of this character. It is not, for me, a completely satisfying outcome, but I am a romantic at heart, and Kanon is not.

Because of this intricate web of motivation on all sides, the meaning of, and the motivation behind, many of the conspirational dialogues are not always clear. The dialogue is convincingly real, but a second reading is often required. That is, Kanon’s characters often do not point out their frame of reference. The reader must deduce it himself. Another issue that never became clear to me is why Alexei appears to be wanted dead at the beginning of the novel, but then is wanted alive, in order to be interrogated, at the end of the novel. Or did I miss the motivation behind that first attempt on his life?

A minor disappointment is the revelation of the identity of a Soviet spy in the American consulate. It is on this premise that the Americans have asked Leon to bring Alexei in. But the mole turns out to be a minor character, about whom no motivation is given. Indeed, the person’s fate is unclear. The Americans have him, the text says. But it would make more sense to me if it said that the Soviets have him. Is there a typo here? Not likely. But it leaves me lost.

However, all this is minor because that revelation of the mole in the US diplomatic corps is not the point of the novel. The point is the moral quandaries that Leon faces. Should he betray the man he is left in charge of, the man he comes to respect and who trusts him? Also, should he betray Kay, his lover who is also married, or betray his wife? Indeed, one might also ask if Leon himself is not betrayed, both by the people around him, beginning with Tommy, and by the ideals he espouses. Leon’s actions at the end, and their interpretation, moreover, also add an irony that matches the cynicism of the author’s Istanbul environment.

To sum up, this is a superior post-war espionage novel that blends history, human drama, and moral dilemmas. It is about both justice and betrayal. Will justice be better served by rescuing this Rumanian, who himself betrayed the Jews, from the revengeful Soviets and then using him for the American’s own purposes? Will justice be served if Leon puts U.S. policy above his loyalty to Alexei, when he learns that the U.S. itself offers no loyalty to Alexei? Thus, it is a choice between betraying Alexei or betraying his government. Moreover, fascinated by his lover, should he betray a wife whom he has already betrayed with a mistress? And the work ends with Leon asking himself if, given the ironic situation he is in, can he free himself by a new betrayal?

Kanon twists himself and his hero into many physical corners as well as moral corners, such as when he and Alexei are taken off a refugee steamship headed to freedom. But he also knows that escaping one entrapment can lead his hero into another. This happens in the climactic confrontation of a prisoner exchange on a bridge, when a crossfire that solves an immediate problem leaves the hero facing still another issue. In this case, a physical entrapment has led him into a moral entrapment.

On to more Kanon, and, I understand, to his return to Berlin (November, 2015)

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

This highly imaginative 2010 novel is far different from Cloud Atlas. There is one setting, Nagasaki, one time frame, around 1800, and one hero, Jacob de Zoet. It offers a rich blend of romance, adventure, and international intrigue in this story of Western vs. Eastern love, slavery vs. freedom, isolation vs. global trade, and a closed vs. an open society, plus the ramifications of murder and revenge, corruption and integrity, and justice and death.

Jacob de Zoet is a Dutch clerk who commits himself to five years in the Orient in order to earn his fortune and be able to marry a Dutch woman back home. But events conspire to keep him on the Dutch island enclave of Dejima, next to Nagasaki. He falls in love with a disfigured midwife, Orito, and fails to act when he sees her kidnapped. Eventually, the guilt he feels will guide has subsequent actions and enforce his later integrity.

Because Jacob has been sent by the Dutch East Indies Company to end the corruption at the outpost and to straighten its books, he becomes involved in the political intrigue there and its power players. As a result, he makes many enemies, and is even demoted when he refuses to accept the corruption of the departing chief. But he does find one friend in Doctor Marinus, a Dutch doctor who was training Orito before she was kidnapped.

Meanwhile, the reader follows the kidnapped Orito to a temple where she helps other kidnapped women give birth to babies that later disappear. This temple life leads to two brilliant scenes. In one, the better, Orito contrives to escape, only to turn back in order to help a close friend through a difficult birth. In the other, her Japanese suitor attempts to storm the temple with a band of armed men, only to be betrayed. His is the first of the deaths that will flavor this romantic tale with a dose of reality.

Reality also includes a conflict between the Dutch and Japanese cultures, and between the Dutch and British empires. The cultural conflict is more significant in literary terms, as it involves tradition vs. innovation and fate vs. risk. The tradition and fate come from the Japanese culture, a culture the author experienced when he himself taught for many years at Hiroshima. (Was it fate when he discovered the actual Dutch island redoubt at Nagasaki?)

The cultural clash is re-enforced by amusing sidebar conversations among de Zoet, who is learning Japanese, and various translators. In this way, Mitchell continually reminds us that his Western and Eastern characters have such different ways of looking at the same world.

That world also includes the rivalry between the Dutch and British empires, which is brought to a head when a British warship enters Nagasaki harbor with the intent of taking over Japan’s trade agreement with the Dutch. We board the English warship Phoebus and witness the political and military maneuvering of its crew and its Captain Penhaligon. There is also a debate, as in the Dutch enclave, about the integrity of their strategy, which is resolved here somewhat arbitrarily when the captain sees in the courageous de Zoet the image of his own late son.

This is the climax of the novel, which then winds slowly down, revealing the eventual fate of the surviving characters. It is a routine ending that has been the product of a vivid imagination and a fascinating exploration of the contrast between cultures and the different values in those cultures.

Several years ago, Mitchell said in an interview: “My intention is to write a bicultural novel, where Japanese perspectives are given an equal weight to Dutch/European perspectives.” He has certainly done so here, especially when he takes us from the rooms of the Dutch enclave and the cabins of the English warship to the halls of both the villain and the Japanese magistrates. There is a blend of the fantasy of a storyteller and the realism of a historian.

Mitchell has also written: “One of the questions I always try to keep in the front of my mind is to ask why would anyone want to read this…People’s time, if you bought it off them, is expensive. Someone’s going to give you eight or ten hours of their life. I want to give them something back, and I want it to be an enjoyable experience.” And this he certainly achieves in this flowing and fascinating story of an innocent Dutchman encountering corruption, then love, then integrity, and finally courage in a foreign world with a far longer perspective toward life than exists in Western culture. Indeed, the title that refers to the thousand autumns of Jacob also refers to the perspective with which Japan regards its own history—and perhaps to Jacob’s identification with that history.

To sum up, this story of Westerners struggling to survive in a Japanese world of different values is a marvelous achievement. It also required considerable research to bring that Japanese world alive. For it is a world of isolation, cruelty, and fate, and yet a world of decorum and mystery.

It is also a world of fantasy, especially the temple of sacrificed children, as well as a world of reality, such as the English warship that actually entered Nagasaki harbor—although, historically, a few years later. But this later point demonstrates how Mitchell used his research and actual history in order to make real not only the action of this novel but also the cultural context of this strange world in which that action takes place. One critic calls this novel, “the triumph of decorum and honor in a world of corruption and perversion.” It is true, if you understand that the decorum and the perversion belong to both cultures.

As Nathan Weatherford notes in his review, “By methodically showing us at the outset of the novel how outwardly different in custom and costume the two cultures are, he makes the personal similarities between characters on each side of this cultural divide that much more apparent in subsequent chapters, [as] the choices made by characters from each culture all hinge on the same basic fears and loves.” He also calls the “intricately structured” international relations, “a metaphor for the inner struggle going on in each character’s soul.”

This work achieves all of that, blending history and imagination, romance and reality, innocence and evil, and the justice of fate. (November, 2015)