Pandora in the Congo by Albert Sánchez Piñol: A Most Wondrous, Fearsome Fiction

5 out of 5 Bloody Knives

Take one of the greatest books every written, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and then sprinkle in some Jules Vernean creatures from the center of the earth, and you have Albert Sánchez Piñol’s newest work, titled Pandora in the Congo. Suffice it to say I liked the book.

Several months ago I stumbled upon the news that Piñol had published a second book. Up till then I had read, and loved, his first work: Cold Skin. Pandora is to be the second book in a trilogy. Needless to say I rushed out to buy it, only to find that it was not yet available in the U.S. Did I wait. No. I tracked it down on Amazon U.K. A hapless click of the button sent me two copies instead of one. Factor in the exchange rate, and I had a $50 book.

An odd aside. Because of my previous post on this story, I was contacted by the American publisher who will handle this book. Impressed by my laudations of Cold Skin, they intend to send me the U.S. copy of the book for free. Now I will own three copies.

It’s hard to pinpoint just one thing to love about Pandora. First it succeeds where many attempts fail. Piñol pulls off a flawless first person narrative where the narrator is not (at least to start) the protagonist. This is where it parallels The Great Gatsby.

The narrator, Tommy Thompson, is an aspiring writer. He starts by ghostwriting a 1914 adventure novel, written in one week from a outline provided by the ignoble Dr. Flag. The title of the book turns out to be Pandora in the Congo. The outline is hilarious to read, with such admonitions to Thompson to not “scrimp on the adjectives”.

Thompson has an unbelievable turn of events (I won’t spoil it, but it involves two funerals), and lands the job of writing the story of one Marcus Garvey. The British manservant was the only survivor of an expedition to the Congo. Both his masters, the Carver brothers, have not returned. Garvey was imprisoned on evidence that Garvey murdered the Carvers. To make matters worse, he returned with two immense diamonds.

Garvey’s lawyer, Edward Norton, hired Thompson to write the manservant’s true account of the events, in hopes that this will help the man’s trial. Garvey’s version contains a tale about a race of creatures, the Tekton, who emerge from a gold mine to invade the world of man. (Anyone familiar with Cold Skin, will see the connection here.)

That said, the book is peppered with aphoristic moments. Here are a few:
•    That was the universal law: the clueless obey the insane.
•    One of the things that makes youth so painful is the belief that much struggling is enough to get what you want.
•    Memory is a perpetually pregnant woman: is always has cravings.
•    To truly measure the value of a good author, what we need  to do is compare him to bad authors.

The novel ends with a remarkable twist, falling like a hammer in the last 50 pages. Normally I’m a slow reader. I piece together chunks of 15 – 20 minutes every so often. Sometimes it takes me over a year to finish a book. At 441 pages, Pandora looked to be a year long book. Not so. Although the second act dragged a bit, once it took hold, it wouldn’t let go. And the last 50 pages went by in a flash (just the way a good book ought to). The ending ties up the odd quirky beginning, and reveals that Thompson was not only the narrator, but the protagonist as well.

Finally, if none of the above convinces you, let me share with you one of Piñol’s characterizations:

After living with MacMahon I came to the conclusion that he was the inventor of five types of farts. One of them I baptized Big Ben farts, precisely spread out, as if marking the hours. Poom, pause, poom, pause, and on and on until midnight. Another kind were the Vickers farts, which were less loud but had the cadence of a machine-gun. Their main trait was that they had no quantitative limit. They could be ten, twenty or thirty. They all made exactly the same sound, MacMahon controlled the dilation of his sphincter and the dose of gas perfectly. Sometimes, though, MacMahon lost control and his farts sounded like a flock of wild ducks, quack, quack, quack. The fourth kind was the Voilin fart: thinner, longer, like a kitten that meows because it’s lost its mother. Those ones really got on my nerves. The fifth type, well those were Doctor Flag farts. I gave them that name because of one of Doctor Flag’s novellas, in which some sort of widespread flood throughout Africa was meant to redeem the continent from paganism. It began with a  large thunderclap; just one, but an omnipotent one.

If you read nothing else, ever, read Pandora in the Congo.

Chris Kalidor

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