This haphazard but imaginative sci-fi kaleidoscope of a novel features ancient Sumerian gods, aliens from outer space, the Mongols, the Nazis, the Holy Quran, and a well-known psychologist.
Alkan’s epic is essentially three stand-alone novellas and some satellite pieces, tacked together with a clumsy framing device and repeating cameos and themes. The first novella centers on Dr. Wilhelm Reich, a real-life Freudian psychologist infamous for his theories of “organon energy.” Readers meet him as a young medical student in Vienna, bewitched and bamboozled by a beautiful psychiatric patient. Years later, in Berlin, he sees her again, after she’s become a medium relaying messages from Sumerian deities—actually space aliens—from whom the Nazis are trying to get weapons. Weaving together elements of Reich’s life story with occult legends, this atmospheric yarn is romantic and shot through with sardonic humor. The next and longest novella takes up about 40 percent of the book, and contains an almost verbatim portion of the author’s previous novel, Code of Disjointed Letters. It follows an Istanbul doctor obsessed with finding secret, coded messages in the Quran; when he writes a book about them, he’s invited onto a bizarre reality television show to compete against mysterious rivals in various contests. There’s a great deal of muddled philosophizing in this Kafkaesque tale, but Alkan’s skill with magical realism redeems it. A third novella follows the 13th century adventures of Cuci, the underappreciated son of Genghis Khan and a ferocious warrior (“I tried to wind the intestines that I slashed out of the abdomen around the neck of someone”) with a wolf fetish. He and his Mongol horde slaughter half of Eurasia before he decides that “something [is] missing.” Cuci’s navel-gazing can drag, but his brutal swashbuckling is well-paced and rousing. Smaller pieces revisit these characters at other junctures, and also recount Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of Peru and a bubonic plague germ’s stream of consciousness. Alkan ties it all together with the grandiose narrative conceit of a figure reincarnating through history and causing wars and epidemics as an evolutionary project to improve the gene pool, but this notion grows steadily more incoherent. Some sections of the book, which sound like awkward translations from another language, could have been severely edited, and Alkan’s stabs at an overarching, extraterrestrial myth-history fizzle. Still, his engaging storytelling, fertile imagination, and evocative imagery will keep readers engrossed.
A patchy but entertaining and emotionally resonant collection of fantasias.