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Thursday, February 9, 2012

"The Detour" by Andromeda Lax-Romano (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

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Order "The Detour" HERE

INTRODUCTION:Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Spanish Bow, a novel about an underprivileged child prodigy who grows to be a famous cellist and mingle with the noble society, while in the process bringing to life some half century of Spanish history. I liked that book quite a lot when I read it on publication in 2008 and the only negative for me was that towards the end it started lacking balance and devolved into a succession of vignettes rather than a coherent tale.

Overall The Spanish Bow was an impressive debut and when I found out about The Detour from the Amazon Vine monthly catalog of all places, the book became an asap and I even got two advanced review copies, the print one from Vine and an e-version from Net Galley. Here is the blurb which while accurate enough does not quite reflect the richness and power of this novel:

"Ernst Vogler is twenty-four years old in 1938 when he is sent to Rome by his employer--the Third Reich's Sonderprojekt, which is collecting the great art of Europe and brining it to Germany for the F├╝hrer. Vogler is to collect a famous Classical Roman marble statue, The Discus Thrower, and get it to the German border, where it will be turned over to Gestapo custody. It is a simple, three-day job.

Things start to go wrong almost immediately. The Italian twin brothers who have been hired to escort Vogler to the border seem to have priorities besides the task at hand--wild romances, perhaps even criminal jobs on the side--and Vogler quickly loses control of the assignment. The twins set off on a dangerous detour and Vogler realizes he will be lucky to escape this venture with his life, let alone his job. With nothing left to lose, the young German gives himself up to the Italian adventure, to the surprising love and inevitable losses along the way.

The Detour is a bittersweet novel about artistic obsession, misplaced idealism, detours, and second chances, set along the beautiful back-roads of northern Italy on the eve of war."

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Detour is a gem of a novel and while I expected to like it, I really did not expect to be blown away by it and to be honest the first 50 pages or so while good do not reveal how just superb the novel becomes once the narrator starts his Italian trek with two dubious twin brothers and a highly prized classical statue in the back of a truck.

As noted above, the author's novelistic debut, The Spanish Bow, scattered a bit too much towards the end, while in The Detour the opposite stands true - after a slightly disorganized beginning which starts making more sense only later in the book, the book pulls its narrative threads together and it is just stunning: a personal tale of discovery, suspense and ultimately life affirming amid the signs of the impending apocalypse.

The narrator, a seeming "loser" still young at 34 in 1948 when he retraces his journey of 10 years ago, turns actually to be a very decent young man, however unheroic and outwardly shy, and that is much more than could be said about many people living in that period. A working class background and an embittered domineering father, coupled with his failure to become the "world class athlete" of said father's dream, leads young Ernst to a seemingly going nowhere life of temporary jobs, essentially being another "male body good for construction work and army training" in the Reich, until a quarrel with his father and a gesture due to that is misinterpreted.

So by chance Ernst gets noticed by the higher ups of the Reich and gets a job as "cultural adviser" - ie cataloging art that the Fuhrer and his acolytes plan to loot - actually as this is 1938, for now they have to buy it, but big scale looting will come soon enough - from abroad.

Ernst does not realize at the time what happened, but later when he is offered the job he takes it as "salvation", only of course his "naive, loser" attitude marks him as an easy prey for the run-of-the-mill gangsters who thought the Nazis were their ticket to their riches as fellow gangsters with a powerful state and police.

"As it turned out, one could have too much knowledge and experience in the arts to be the best match for certain kinds of employment. Someone older than me, who had worked in the field longer and under a different zeitgeist, would have developed many ideas and tolerances that were no longer acceptable. When I first started working in our office there had been several modern art curators among us, but invariably, their tastes became problematic. Perhaps they defended an artist, living or dead, or had certain ideas about embracing new possibilities, or weren’t sympathetic to the anti-modern “degenerate” exhibitions supported by the government."

As structure, The Detour seamlessly weaves its 1938 mostly Italian tale with the back story that is both poignant and reveals a lot about how the Reich happened and why "normal" people supported a bunch of gangsters led by a charismatic madman. In addition there are several chapters that take place in 1948 when Ernst narrates the tale while back for the first time in Italy since 1938. This structure reduces a little the tension about the fate of Ernst - after all we know he survived both his ill fated trip of 1938 and the war - but in return it offers a dual way of seeing the events of the novel and that pays off big time as the book goes on.

The writing is top notch with excellent narrative flow, action and drama, while the Italian countryside and its seeming timelessness and detachment from the dramatic world events of the time is pictured pitch perfect by the author. Add to this the interludes where Ernst muses about art and its role in society and you will get a sense of why the book succeeds so well as it brings quite a few disparate elements into a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

A great ending - not unexpected but still excellent - and no wonder I really loved The Detour and ranked it a top 25 novel of mine for 2012!


Chad Hull said...

I was a fan of The Spanish Bow. I still remember that first sentence and how much trouble I had initially processing it: "I was almost born Happy."

It meandered a bit more than I would have liked, but was strong enough that I would check out the author's other writing.

Liviu said...

I agree with the meandering part - especially towards the end; definitely worth checking out The Detour then

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