A fantastical debut novel set during the Spanish Inquisition explores the distance between reality and dreams.
Antonio, the patriarch of the Tomé family in Madrid and an architect, announces at a gathering that he’s received a commission to build “a great altar in a great cathedral” in Toledo, and so the family is moving there. Once in Toledo, Esperanza, the wife of Antonio’s son, Narciso, experiences a series of erotically charged dreams in which she inhabits the body of another woman, Nora. In this nocturnal fantasy, Nora has a torrid affair with Narciso. Daniel Karpinski relentlessly interrogates the interstices between the real and the hallucinatory—Esperanza’s dreams at first seem like unconscious expressions of her own frustrations with waking life. But then they seem like prophecies when these imaginings start to leak into the world. Esperanza makes the acquaintance of Nora del Pulpo. Then Nora’s husband, Miguel, a public prosecutor, discovers the real affair between his wife and Narciso. As a result, Narciso is forced to clandestinely flee from the unmerciful judgment of the Inquisition. The book—translated from the Polish by Max Karpinski—is filled with fabulist contraventions of stark reality. Esperanza stumbles on an apparition in the basement, and Narciso conveys himself in a flying basket he operates with his mind. The story is composed in novelistic form, but each chapter begins with a short summary that often includes stage notes, as if the drama were designed to be performed in a theater. Daniel Karpinski is endlessly imaginative, and his massive philosophical ambitions are impressive. But the plot is agonizingly convoluted, and the author seems to consider readers’ bewilderment a sign of the tale’s sophistication. The prose is impenetrably dense and strains far too energetically for philosophical refinement. Even the chapter prefaces become confusedly entangled: “Doña Esperanza Tomé, disguised as Narciso Tomé, uses Maja, the former shop assistant, to deceive doña Nora del Pulpo, whose body, not too long ago, doña Esperanza used to betray herself with her own husband, who she now pretends to be.”
A laborious attempt at philosophical theater.