Review of Waiting for Columbus by Thomas Trofimuk
Waiting for Columbus
by Thomas Trofimuk
Last month I reviewed Galileo's Dream, in which I waxed philosophical about the attraction of certain historical individuals. Like Galileo, Christopher Columbus is another giant who captures our imaginations. Although he did not "discover" North America, Columbus did spearhead expeditions that brought the utility of North America to the attention of European powers. And the rest is, as they say, history. Columbus helped to change the world, but what we know about Columbus the person is not always clear. Unlike Galileo's Dream, Waiting for Columbus presents not a historical figure but a personality based on facts known about Columbus' life. A history professor who undergoes a traumatic event adopts the identity of Columbus. His intriguing story contains the clues needed to unlock his real identity.
Waiting for Columbus shares a lot in common with a mystery. The main characters (even Columbus, although he would deny it at first) are all fixated on discovering Columbus' true identity. There is even an Interpol investigator on the trail of a missing man, and his search eventually leads him to Columbus. Yet make no mistake: this is not a mystery. It is instead a romance, in the sweeping, historical sense of the word.
Columbus repeats throughout the book, "Trust the teller, not the tale." This refers to the shifting nature of his narrative's landscape. Mixed in with references to 15th-century Spain are anachronisms like laptops, handguns, telephones, and Starbucks. Actually, I enjoyed these anachronisms more than I expected: they made me wonder what historical events would be like if we transposed the people to a modern day setting. I love it when books push me down a tangent.
But I digress. Columbus is an unreliable narrator, and we must follow Consuela as she tries to puzzle out some sort of meaning from his stories. When he asks us to trust him, if not his story, Columbus means that his stories might not be accurate, but what he is saying with the stories is important to his state of mind. As Emile discovers, some of the characters and locations in Columbus' story are real people and places he visited prior to arriving at the institute. Others, as Balderas deduces, are composites of several people or fragments of a single person. Trofimuk nicely balances what we learn about Columbus from his story with what we learn from Consuela and Emile's private investigations. Again, this is not a mystery, but it has elements of mystery to it.
Like Consuela, I couldn't help but fall a little in love with "Columbus." Trofimuk's portrayal of Columbus the historical figure is indubitably sympathetic, but he can get away with this because it's precisely not a historical work; rather, this Columbus is one man's appropriation of the Columbus mythos, which he then revises to fit his own psychology. The Columbus we see is the brilliant dreamer, as passionate about discovery as he is about women, driven to explore and find a western route to India and China. We feel the blow that is every setback, every delay, every naysayer. And parts of the Columbus mythos that are not generally considered fact—such as the misconception that Columbus was some sort of revolutionary for thinking the Earth round—suddenly become important, symbolic.
This marriage of symbolism and history says a lot about storytelling, and that is the principle attraction of Waiting for Columbus. Trofimuk consciously and deliberately plays with metaphor and character in a transparent manner. One of my favourite elements of the story is the unconsummated love between Columbus and Isabella. It reminded me of a short story I read back in my first university English course: "Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella of Spain Consummate Their Relationship (Santa Fe, A. D. 1492)," by Salman Rushdie. That story was my first exposure to Rushdie and impressed me enough to seek out more of his work. It was also a very postmodern narrative, with different perspectives and a style that is almost verse instead of prose. In both cases, Isabella's love for Columbus plays a pivotal role in getting him funding and ships. "I need to put an ocean between this queen and that foolish navigator. I needed to stop this lust in me. It was the only way," Isabella says in Waiting for Columbus. And in "Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella," Columbus dreams,
Yes! She knows it now! She must must must give him the money, the ships, anything, and he must must must carry her flag and her favour beyond the end of the end of the earth, into exaltation and immortality, linking her to him for ever with bonds far harder to dissolve than those of any mortal love, the harsh and deifying ties of history.
Both stories play with the Columbus mythos in a way that highlights how we view and romanticize history and historical figures. Regardless of the true nature of their relationship, history has inexorably linked Columbus and Isabella, just as he dreams she desires in Rushdie's story. We will never know whether she does this out of love, as Waiting for Columbus depicts, or simple recognition of the advantages a successful expedition would bring to Spain. But really, it is better that way, is it not? We like the ambiguity, the ability to envision different reasons for history.
It's these moments of playful storytelling that catch Waiting for Columbus at its best. Trofimuk infuses the book with the atmosphere of a lazy day in August. The sky is always tinged with the orange of sunset, and there's plenty of wine to go around . . . that is how reading this book feels. He has a great capacity for description; of particular note is his attention to the sense of smell. Writers often neglect smell, either using it only sparsely or when it's pertinent to the plot or just forgetting it entirely. So I like when an author like Trofimuk comes along and makes smell a seamless part of the scene. It really does add another dimension of sense to the story.
Also, I appreciate the positive portrayal of a psychiatric institution. So much fiction involving institutions focuses on the negative, on the abuse by other patients and staff, on the ineffective or misguided treatments. There's no doubt such problems exist and should be written about, whether in fiction or non-fiction. But I like seeing the other side too, the positive, successful side. In the beginning of Waiting for Columbus, the director of the institute is Dr. Fuentes. He is the stereotypical disinterested psychiatrist who has no time for indulging Columbus' stories. However, halfway through the book Fuentes gets written off, and Trofimuk introduces the more personable and sympathetic Dr. Balderas, as if to say, "That's enough of that: here's how we'll do things from now on." There is never any doubt that this man only thinks he is Columbus; there is no hint of a plot or conspiracy on the part of the institute. And this certainty gives Trofimuk the freedom to tell the story of "Columbus" however he wants.
I cannot specify when I became immersed in this story. At first I had trouble reading more than a chapter or two at a time; it was interesting but not engrossing. At some point, however, the story clicked, and I needed to learn what happened to Columbus. The ending, alas, did not live up to my sudden increase in expectation. After waiting so long to learn about "Columbus'" identity and watch him recover, the book tails off, finishing the story very abruptly. We get no coda that tells us what happens to Consuela or to Emile, and Trofimuk speeds through an overview of how "Columbus" reintegrates with his new self. It is not a disaster, just a discordant note in the symphony.
Waiting for Columbus surprised me, because I did not think I would like it quite as much as I did. I picked it off the New Books shelf at my library on a whim. What I thought would be an OK story about a patient in a mental institution turned out to be a complex, poetic exploration of story and history. It is a wonderful tale of a Christopher Columbus who never was.