Friday, October 16, 2009

Waiting for Columbus

Thomas Trofimuk popped into the Library last night for a reading and a chat about his great new novel, Waiting for Columbus. Thomas is a critically-acclaimed Edmonton writer with two well-received novels to his name. His 2002 debut novel, The 52nd Poem, won the Writers' Guild of Alberta's Georges Bugnet Award for Alberta Novel of the Year as well as the Edmonton Book Prize. His second novel, from 2006, Doubting Yourself to the Bone, was a Globe & Mail 100 pick. He is also an accomplished poet, one of the founders of the Raving Poets collective.

And of course, being a successful poet and novelist in Alberta means Thomas also has a full-time day job - working in the salt mines of the Provincial government (No, not literally - I'm pretty sure the government has no salt mines. Thomas works as a Business Analyst for Municipal Affairs). But with his new Columbus book Thomas has turned the dial on his writing career up to 11. The book had big buzz before publication and a major American publisher paid him a sizable advance. Foreign rights have been sold in various countries.

What created the buzz was a great story really. Around the library we call them "good reads" - those special books that find the sweet spot between the serious literary work and the popular thriller with the strong narrative that pulls you through. At the reading Thomas noted that with this book he really tried to focus on the story. Clearly he was successful as this is a very readable book with the beautiful language and memorable characters of capital "L" literature.

The seed of Columbus had been knocking about Trofimuk's mind for 15 years until recently when he had an epiphany and figured out how to write the story. He pulled off the road (I think he said the Whitemud freeway?), phoned his wife and asked her to copy down his ideas on how he would write the book.

The book is a mistaken identity tale which begins with a modern-day man being admitted to a mental hospital in Seville, Spain. The man is convinced he is Christopher Columbus. He tells his story to Consuela, a sympathetic nurse, and we soon see problems with his story (he has a cell phone for example). Meanwhile there is a parallel story of a detective searching for someone in Spain. Momentum builds as we learn who Columbus really is. In the meantime we're treated to a fun character, for Columbus is quite the rogue, with a fondness for women and winer.

The Library has another Columbus-related novel: Codex 632 by José Rodrigues dos Santos. This thriller is a late entry in the "it's like The Da Vinci Code" sweepstakes, for it has a Robert Langdon-ish historian hot on the trail of a improbable conspiracy involving the true identity of Christopher Columbus. Like The Da Vinci Code, the novel quickly jumps from New York to Jerusalem to Brazil, using clues from Kabbalah and the Templars. But unlike The Da Vinci Code the author seems to want to get EVERYTHING he knows about Columbus onto the page, leaving the various plots gasping for air.

Reading Trofimuk's Waiting for Columbus I was reminded of George Bowering's postmodern Canadian classic novel, Burning Water. The Library's copy is long-gone, so I was happy to see that Vancouver's New Star books brought it back into print. This really is an underrated book. It did win the 1980 Governor General's Award for Fiction but no one seems to have heard of it when I mention it. Maybe it is because it doesn't fit the mold (any mold!) as it is a funny book. Check out the impassioned praise of the book by Jeff Foss in Books in Canada, where he calls it "one of the best Canadian books of the last 50 years or so".

Burning Water is a novel that re-imagines the 1792 voyage of Captain George Vancouver to the coast of British Columbia. He cheekily invents history, having Vancouver in a love affair with the Spanish explorer Don Juan Francisco la Bodega y Quadra. Have a read when the Library's new copy arrives!


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