A dense tapestry of memory engulfs and all but smothers the three enigmatic protagonists of Michelsen’s demanding third (after Hard Bottom, 2001, etc.).
The story begins ominously with the image of a wrecked train, then shifts to Paris, where a weekend trip to the countryside of Alsace is undertaken by old acquaintances Eva Koszegfalvi (a Hungarian research psychiatrist), Ludovic Rohan (a marine archeologist turned underwater cinematographer), and American Frank Duggan (international aid worker, arms smuggler, and now teacher specializing in “the politics of aid and development”). The trio had met 12 years earlier, when they were held hostage by native Indians rebelling against the corrupt government of the Central American republic of Xelaju (which seems to be more or less Mexico). Michelsen juxtaposes the progress of their (somewhat wary) reunion with detailed flashbacks from each one’s point of view. Frank’s stunted amorality is revealed as an offshoot of his disillusioning involvement with Rhode Island labor and political corruption and his initially idealistic collusion with guerrilla warfare. “Ludo’s” passion for diving and salvaging ironically expresses grief for his dead sister and for missed romantic opportunities. And Eva’s professional investigations into the phenomenon of memory are compromised by constantly resurfacing shards of her family’s history of wartime suffering and signs of her own vulnerability and mortality. The narrative’s backward and forward plunges are both involving and baffling, but Michelsen makes all the necessary linkages, and deepens the novel’s texture impressively with vignettes of WWI battlefield experiences of Ludo’s fallen great-grandfather and thematically telling excerpts from the work of suicidal Hungarian poet Attila Jozsef. The potent theme of both the permanence and the elusiveness of what is past but not gone is also provocatively linked to the thought of medieval theologian John Duns Scotus.
An unusual tale, a bit reminiscent of Malcolm Lowry. Initially forbidding, ultimately very rewarding indeed.