Late in Thomas Trofimuk's new novel, Waiting for Columbus, one of the main characters, a psychiatric nurse named Consuela Lopez, notices a group of patients where she works at the Sevilla Institute for the Mentally Ill, in Spain, working together to solve a puzzle: "There is a small gaggle of puzzlers across the room, patiently placing puzzle pieces, rotating, trying again and again to make the picture complete."
It's almost a throwaway line, a tiny, seemingly insignificant detail at the edge of the canvas. But I burst out laughing when I read it because it struck me as Trofimuk's wink at the reader. By that point in his captivating novel I felt like one of those patients, compelled to figure out how to fit together the various enigmatic pieces this talented author-cum-puzzle-maker has set before us.
The titular "Columbus" is a mysterious man brought into the Institute one day in 2005, insisting that he is, yes, that Christopher Columbus. Nurse Consuela is intrigued and takes on the mission of figuring out who he really is. Over the course of weeks, she listens as Columbus tells stories filled with incredible details of "his" 15th-century efforts to get the funding, ships and supplies needed to sail across the Atlantic.
Unfortunately, the same tales are filled with jarring, anachronistic details that seem to confirm that the man is completely delusional. His stories are a mash-up of 15th and 21st century peculiarities that put Consuela on the shakiest psychological and perceptual ground: Queen Isabella's bodyguards wear Secret Service-style earpieces and carry Walther PPK semiautomatic pistols. During his pre-expedition briefing with the Queen's treasurer, Columbus finds himself surrounded by court counsellors carrying cell phones; one of them struggles with the latch on his briefcase. One of Columbus's many lovers waits for him in a Starbucks on the night before he sets sail on his history-making voyage.
Yet other details are so intimate and precise that Consuela (and by extension the reader) is never completely confident in her search for Columbus's true identity. Columbus tells Consuela of the terror that gripped any independent thinker under the Inquisition's fundamentalist onslaught, of Queen Isabella's obsessive preoccupation with the siege of Muslim-occupied Granada, of the closely kept secret that assures him that there just might be land across the vast ocean, despite his contemporaries' skepticism.
[The book]is one of those rare gems that works on a number of levels and makes ingenious use of eras shadowed by anxiety
And we wonder if in fact Queen Isabella's decision to grant Columbus the ships he needed might really have been motivated by unrequited love? And this friend, this "Juan" to whom Columbus casually refers, could that not be the famed soldier and explorer Juan Ponce de León? How can this mysterious "Columbus" know so many things that Columbus likely knew?
"Life is not a story," Consuela tells Columbus. "Of course life is a story. Life is only a story," he responds. And, like the Persian king seduced by Scheherazade's stories in One Thousand and One Nights, Consuela is seduced by the stories and also by the man, but not without some struggle and impatience. At one point, Columbus begs her to be patient: "Of course, you want to know what happens next, but great stories should never be rushed. This is a story about obsession and love, and lust and imminent discovery." He's not exaggerating. Waiting for Columbus is truly about all these things.
Because so much is revealed toward the novel's end, I don't want give too much away. Suffice to say, we do have companions in our puzzle-figuring. We have Consuela, a divorcée, who also happens to be a voracious reader and thus, perhaps the perfect audience for Columbus's strange ramblings. We have Dr. Balderas, a dedicated psychiatrist who also happens to share Columbus's passion for chess and wine (come to think of it, everyone in this novel seems to adore wine; every other page made me crave a glass). And we have a Paris-based Interpol agent (also divorced) named Emil, who is tasked to find and identify a missing man.
Just as Columbus's stories are a stew of historic and modern details, Waiting for Columbus is a mash-up of novelistic structures and influences. D.M. Thomas's masterpiece The White Hotel, with its puzzling and heart-rending symbology, comes immediately to mind. Like The White Hotel, Columbus takes us into the maze of a mind traumatized and disordered by historic events. A.S. Byatt's Possession, a hybrid of contemporary and historical fiction, also comes to mind.
Waiting for Columbus too offers up present-day characters looking for answers hidden in the past. And like those works, it is one of those rare gems that works on a number of levels and makes ingenious use of eras shadowed by anxiety, uncertainty and tectonic, historic change - times like ours. Thomas Trofimuk's novel throws you for a loop, pulls you back, twists you around and opens your eyes to the world not just as it was, but as we find it.
Patrick Lohier is a Toronto-based freelance writer. He is currently at work on his second novel.