A time-hopping novel explores a father’s boundless interests and the loyal maid attempting to corral him.
In a repressive nation, an unnamed narrator tells readers that his father “dreamed with his eyes tightly shut or wide open.” The narrator depicts believable notions of a man who is a detective or a magician, but also delivers more whimsical stories of one who is ageless. This father becomes the first man to fly in a hot air balloon when he lives in Florence during the Renaissance. He invents zero, and performs ventriloquism in ancient Rome. The father’s maid, whom he loves and constantly tries to woo (“How about I give you the world?”), cleans up their home and his disastrous forays into public life. As he tries to open a bordello, the state’s secret police arrive to arrest him and his “bevy of beauties.” When interrogation leads nowhere, the authorities destroy all records of the man, thus “freeing him...not only from the clutches of the state but from his own as well.” This suits the father because he loathes facts, history, and labels. Later, during a bloody revolution, he operates a carousel in the city. He’s once again arrested, and his reputation as a clever agitator grows. The state gives him a butcher shop to run so that it can monitor him better while he clings “to our maid the way he must have clung to...the dangerous ledges of the mountains” in a previous life. Will madness someday engulf this serial experimenter?
With an ear keenly attuned to the ridiculous, Grof (Artists, 2016) chronicles life in a brutal regime that requires a strong imagination to survive. He introduces vignettes such as “My father an alchemist” or “My father uninterested in facts,” and by leaving out the linking verbs (is or was, for example), the prose brings to mind the titles of paintings in a gallery. The father’s past lives can indeed be enjoyed in any order. But scenes involving the maid and the state proceed linearly, though the author obsessively muddles these with lines like “My father no one’s fool. Or throughout his long life my father everyone’s fool including his own.” The father becomes like Schrödinger’s cat before the box opens, existing in two—or sometimes more—states at once (“My father fearing loneliness. My father seeking nothing so fervently as a solitary existence”). This narrative play, whereby readers might flirt with multiple emotional paths throughout the novel, provides relief from the more concrete, mainstream reading experience. Yet one instance when this technique backfires is in discovering that the father during World War II flew planes for the Allies, and “could have just as easily joined the Luftwaffe, but their manners as well as their uniforms” didn’t appeal to him. Obviously history judges the Nazis by much more serious criteria. Overall, readers may favor the grounded episodes that allow them to latch onto this fractious character more than the flights of fancy.
An intricate tale for readers open to a jaunt along the outer rim of narrative possibility.