Age-indeterminate Hiroshima survivor and 20-something librarian form an unlikely alliance while studying cloud-seekers in Audeguy’s debut.
The shadow of W.B. Sebald looms like cumulonimbus over this novel. In his Paris hôtel particulier with its glassed-in third story, Japanese designer Akira Kumo is briefing Virginie, whom he’s hired to catalogue his considerable archive on the science and art of cloud observation. Structured as a series of tales exchanged by the pair, the action ranges across two centuries of weather, depicting Quaker missionary Howard, the first man to classify clouds (c. 1802), Carmichael, whose sky paintings eventually drove him mad, and most exhaustively, Richard Abercrombie, an explorer and scientist who journeyed the globe hoping to best his rival, Williamsson, with a photographic atlas of world climates. A mushroom cloud has shaped Kumo’s life: His true age (in 2005) could be anything from 71 to 80-plus, due to destroyed birth records, his suppressed memories and his compulsion to continually start anew. Gradually the truth emerges: His parents died in air raids, and his sister was vaporized by the bomb at Hiroshima—Kumo was saved because he was skinny-dipping in a pond. He sends Virginie to London to scout out the missing lynchpin of his collection: the fabled Abercrombie Protocol, supposedly the compendium Abercrombie completed after his world tour. After a brief affair with Abercrombie’s grandson, Virginie secures the Protocol. She returns to Paris to find Kumo wheelchair-bound after an abortive suicide leap off his balcony. The Protocol chronicles Abercrombie’s disillusionment in a Borneo jungle as he witnesses the death of a noble orangutan at the hands of boorish Englishmen. Abercrombie, a 49-year-old virgin, becomes a determined libertine: The Protocol, it will appear, is largely photographs of women’s genitalia. Bent’s supple translation enlivens potentially dry meteorological meditations. Readers might wish for more stage time with Kumo and Virginie, which is not possible in a novel that exalts intersecting motifs over character.
Unconventional and memorable.