A Small Death in Lisbon, by Robert Wilson

The small death in this 1999 novel is a kind of culmination of larger deaths, as we begin in the 1990s with the rape and murder of a young girl in Lisbon and then are switched to Portugal in the 1940s and that country’s role in aiding the German cause that resulted in the deaths of millions in World War II. Indeed, for the rest of this novel, we alternate between the recent small-scale story and the earlier large-scale story. Can there be a connection between the two?

One story concerns Lisbon Inspector Ze Coelho‘s investigation of the girl’s death, and the other the adventures of Klaus Felsen, a German factory owner conscripted into the SS, and who is assigned to smuggle wolfram out of Portugal for the German war effort. Felsen later is ordered to smuggle German gold into Portugal and to set up a bank in order to preserve the gold, and we follow his fortunes postwar as the bank he helps set up reaches international prominence. And as the time frame narrows between the two stories, we do begin to wonder how, or will, these two stories ever come together.

The search for the girl’s killer is rather routine, with the inspector interviewing the girl’s family, including her powerful father, a lawyer, and various people on the fringes of society who know of the secret life that led to her murder. The wolfram adventures of Felsen are also routine for an espionage novel, as he works underground with the head of the Abrantes, a Portuguese peasant family, to set up the supply chain. In fact, his relationship with them continues after the war, as the sons use the banking gold to create a new and prosperous image for themselves with no ties to the past.

Despite what I find to be somewhat formulaic adventures in both the present and the past, this work has earned laurels from many crime critics. But for me it gradually became a disappointment. In part, because the pursuit, in one case of facts and in another case of fulfillment, seemed to be reaching no conclusion. Interest heightened only when the stories of Coelho and Felsen become personal. When they introduced sexual or family relationships, or when sudden violence was required because one’s reputation or one’s survival was threatened. This also results in a number of brutal murders that do, if only briefly, heighten the dramatic tension. As a small counterbalance, however, the author, as a resident himself, is very effective at using streets, plazas, and landmarks to ground these various adventures in a real Portugal.

One waits to learn the connection between these two tales, the girl’s murder and the earlier maneuvering with, first, the wolfram and then the gold. When the connection comes, it begins as a generational link, an obvious but arbitrary outcome that disappoints. And then come the details, which are quite complicated, as in many a mystery. The details involve teenage prostitution, obscure characters playing major roles, a major character taken out of commission, a family rape and revenge, the innocent being guilty, the truly guilty not participating in the deaths, and, finally, the irony of an illegitimate birth.

Given both the violent acts and the sexual activity of these characters, The New York Times review by Richard Bernstein speculates positively about author Wilson’s intent in writing this crime novel “It as though Mr. Wilson wants to draw a private, personal parallel to the organized breakdown of civilized behavior represented by the Nazis, the idea that mass murder engineered by a mad ideology has its microscopic counterpart in individual acts of sexual domination and cruelty.”

But Bernstein also says the novel is “not persuasive in absolutely every detail” and that the author “overdoes matters” towards the end, resulting in a kind of “lurid indiscriminateness.” Which remarks reflect my own opinion. That there is too much authorial ambition here. Too arbitrary an effort in trying to connect past and present. And there are too many complications, with too many characters, some obscure, playing too significant a role, as the author tries to make sense of their complicated relationships.

I have another Wilson novel to read, about a police inspector in Sevilla, and, while I have enjoyed the author’s work in the past, I am not sure how eagerly I should look forward to a work that appears to be similar to this Lisbon story. (December, 2018)

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Death of the Black-Haired Girl, by Robert Stone

This 2013 novel begins disappointingly, matures into a thoughtful literary work, and then eases itself at the end into a simple portrait of life. As Claire Messud writes in her New York Times review, Stone, “demands an attentive reader as he explores, through superficially familiar narratives, substantial themes.”

The novel begins with an affair at a small, elite university in New England between a married university professor, Steven Brookman and his smart, attractive student, Maud Stack. And my reaction is: how trite can a novel get? It is truly a “familiar narrative.” Maud is the black-haired girl of the title, an aggressive, opinionated student who allows herself to be seduced and convinces herself that this man is the love of her life. One reads on, unable to relate to her (or to the selfish, womanizing professor), simply because one is curious about how she is going to die.

That death does become a mystery, but this is not a mystery novel. Maud is killed by a hit-and-run-driver outside the professor’s house, when she argues with him and then turns angrily away. What matters to Stone now is what happens to the people who knew her and were left behind. Theirs will be a tale of accountability, and the pursuit of absolution. But unfortunately, we get to know Maud on only two superficial levels, her mad infatuation with the professor and her violent, over-wrought defense of abortion. We do not get inside her, to learn about her relationship with her father or her faith.

Instead, we get to know her through her banter with her roommate Shelby, an older girl but not one wiser in the ways of men. Indeed, Stone allows getting to know about Maud and her affair to take up the first third of the book. Only then do we get to probe more deeply into various characters. Moreover, Shell herself will play no significant role in these characters’ concerns about accountability. Only her estranged husband John Clammer will play a role—that is, be raised by Stone as a suspect, as will also a local madman and the mysterious vision of a priest. Except, these are nothing more than the MacGufins that appear in many a mystery novel, which this is not.

More important is Maud’s father, Eddie Stack, a retired policeman in New York who has lost his wife and now loses his only daughter. He asks if this is retribution because of past cooperation with a corrupt brother-in-law. He is distraught, ridden with guilt, now compounded because he and his daughter have gone their separate ways. And so he seeks a kind of atonement by asking to bury his daughter beside his wife in a church crypt. But a conservative Catholic priest is reluctant to do this, perhaps because of the scandal of her affair but more significantly because she has spurned her Church and has written a pro-abortion column for the university newspaper.

Equally significant is the impact of the girl’s death on Professor Brookman and his newly pregnant wife Ellie. He is filled with guilt for the affair and the disrespect he has shown to his wife. And all he cares for now is to ease his conscience, and to control how his wife will react to the affair.

Outside looking in is university counselor Jo Carr, a mature woman whom everyone leans upon for advice. She was once a nun in South America, and lost her faith after witnessing the evil fostered by a priest who identified with the poor. Also present is Mary Pat, the wife of the university president, who has connections in the Church hierarchy and works to have Maud buried in the church beside her mother. The author himself was raised a Catholic, and here he offers a balanced interpretation, not often seen in the literary world, of the conflict between the beliefs held by the more conservative hierarchy and those by more liberal lay Catholics.

It is the impact of this girl’s accidental death on these people that matters to the author, and it represents the richest portion of this novel. As Messud writes, these “are certainly Christian narratives, but they’re ultimately examples of our human need to find meaning in what threatens to be incomprehensible events.” Basically, the unexpected death of Maud.

The impact of her death extends even to a local policeman, Lou Salmone. He once shared with Eddie Stack a New York beat. The major suspense of the novel is whether or not Stack will take revenge on Professor Brookman for the death of his daughter. And both Salmone and Jo Carr will take steps to prevent this. It is here, in the concealed emotions that impact all these characters, that the heart of the novel lies.

And so, will he or won’t he? That is, Stack take his revenge. The novel builds to his confrontation with Brookman. Whereupon we follow all these characters into the future, some impacted more than others by Maud’s death. But life continues on, the author seems to say. People adjust. This is what our existence brings. Moments of drama. Tragedy for some. And the accommodation to reality for others.

Michiko Kakutani sums up Stone’s intentions with this novel: “It explicates its characters’ hope that life is not completely random—‘people always want their suffering to mean something’—and their contradictory awareness of the dangers of religious certainty; their understanding that choices have moral consequences; and that innocents frequently are tangled and hurt in the crossfire.” All true, but not conveyed, I believe, felicitously by Stone. His work is too encumbered by the set-up that takes one-third of the novel. As well as by the complex emotions of Brookman, Stack, Jo Cobb, and policeman Salmone. Perhaps it would have been better to have concentrated only on Brookman and Stack, and gone still more deeply into their desire for redemption and absolution.

This is a predictable novel by an author nearing the end of his career. It is a kind of summing up. About life. About family relationships. About our trust in one another. But mainly about our faith and the meaning of our lives. It is also not a complex story, one that challenges the author intellectually or structurally. Thus, while he uses the structure of a mystery, with a death and a police investigation, he does not write a mystery. He examines, instead, the impact of the death of Maud on all the people in her life. Indeed, the “death” in the title re-enforces this intent. (April, 2017)