The crater held a circle of stars above them as if they were closed up in a snow globe, a private cosmos. He thought of Darwin sleeping out on the pampas during his Beagle trip, a middle-class white kid traveling the world, the first of the backpackers. It was only afterwards, really, that he had made any sense of what he had seen. Alex wondered what, in the fullness of time, he himself would make sense of, what small, crucial detail might be lodging itself in his brain that would shake his life to its foundations. (p 286)
Montreal during the turbulent mid-1980’s: Chernobyl has set geiger counters thrumming across the globe, HIV/AIDS is cutting a deadly swath through the gay population worldwide, and locally, tempers are flaring over the language laws of Bill 101. Hiding out in a seedy apartment near the Concordia campus is Alex Fratarcangeli (“Don’t worry... I can’t even pronounce it myself”), a somewhat oafish 30-something grad student. Though tender and generous at heart, Alex leads a life devoid of healthy relationships, ashamed in particular of the damage he has done to the women with whom he has been romantically entangled. Plagued by the sensation that his entire life is a fraud, Alex attends daily sessions with a lackluster psychoanalyst in an attempt to shake off the demon of depression (and the cigarette-tinged voice of Peter Gzowski in his ear). Scarred by a distant father and a dangerous relationship with his ex Liz, and consumed by a floundering dissertation linking Darwin’s theory of evolution with the history of human narrative, Alex has come to view love and other human emotions as “evolutionary surplus, haphazard neural responses that nature had latched onto for its own insidious purposes.”
Then a convergence of brave souls enter Alex’s life, forcing him to recognize the possibility of meaningful connections. There is his neighbour Esther, whose multiple sclerosis is progressing rapidly, yet who gamely attacks every day she has left. There is the elegant Félix, an older gay man whose own health status is in question yet who remains resolutely generous,and María, returning to fight for human rights in her native El Salvador, knowing she will face certain peril. Along the way Alex meets others whose struggles with their own demons are not so successful, and sometimes tragic. When he receives a letter from Ingrid, the beautiful woman he knew years ago in Sweden, notifying him of the existence of his five year old son. Alex is gripped by a paralytic terror.
Whenever Alex’s thoughts grow darkest, he is compelled to recall Desmond, the British professor with dubious credentials whom he met years ago in the Galapagos. Treacherous and despicable, wearing his ignominy like his rumpled jacket, Desmond nonetheless caught Alex in his thrall and led him to some life-altering truths during their weeks exploring Darwin’s islands together. It is only now that Alex can begin to comprehend these unlikely life lessons, and see a glimmer of hope shining through what he had thought was meaninglessness.
Funny, poignant and visceral, Nino Ricci’s most recent masterpiece The Origin of Species will remind you of the wonder of life, the beauty of existence and the great gift that is our connection to the universe and all that is.
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Nino Ricci was born in Leamington, Ontario, to parents from the Molise region of Italy. He studied English literature and creative writing at York University and Concordia University, then Italian studies at the University of Florence. He has taught literary studies and creative writing in Canada and abroad. He now lives in Toronto, and is a past president of the Canadian Centre of International PEN.
Nino Ricci’s first novel Lives of the Saints garnered international acclaim, appearing in fifteen countries and winning a host of awards, including Canada’s Governor General's Award for Fiction and the Books in Canada First Novel Award, and England’s Betty Trask Award and the Winifred Holtby Prize. Lives of the Saints formed the first volume of a trilogy that was completed by In A Glass House and Where She Has Gone, which was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize for Fiction. The trilogy was adapted for a miniseries starring Sophia Loren, Sabrina Ferilli, and Kris Kristofferson.
Ricci’s 2002 novel Testament was the co-winner of the Trillium Award and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize for Canada and the Caribbean and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. It has been published in several languages around the globe and was a Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year.
In 2006, Ricci was named the inaugural winner of the Alistair MacLeod Award for Literary Achievement. His most recent novel, Giller-nominated The Origin of Species, was published in September 2008.
There has never been a document of culture which was not at one and the same time a document of barbarism.
“Theses on the Philosophy of History,” VII
The girl standing in the foyer when Alex went down to get his mail, trembling slightly on her cane, was Esther. Not a girl, really: a woman. Everyone in the building knew her. Or everyone, it seemed, except Alex, who, in the few months since he’d moved here, had never quite managed to be the one to open a door for her, or put her key in her mailbox, or start a conversation with her in the oppressive intimacy of the building’s elevators.
She was looking out through the plate glass of the entrance doors to the street, where sunlight now glinted off the morning’s earlier sprinkling of rain.
“I wouldn’t go out there if you don’t have to,” Alex said, then regretted at once his admonitory tone.
From the confusion that came over her, plain as if a shadow had crossed her, it was clear she hadn’t understood.
“The rain,” he said.
“Oh!” She looked up through her thickish glasses at the now cloudless sky and her whole face seemed to twist with the strain of trying to follow his meaning.
“Chernobyl,” he said, making a botch of it. “The fallout. They say you shouldn’t go out if it’s rained.”
“Oh-h-h!” She drew the word out as if in understanding. “Really? They say that? Oh!”
“They’re saying the clouds might pick the radiation up over Russia, then dump it somewhere else. At least, I think that’s what they’re saying.”
It suddenly occurred to Alex, though the story had been practically the only thing in the news since the Swedes had broken it a few days before, that she didn’t have any idea what he was talking about.
“You know, I heard about that,” she said, and Alex was relieved. “About Chernobyl. Isn’t it awful?”
They stood there an instant while Alex half-turned, not wanting to put his back to her, and awkwardly retrieved his mail, which was just junk, it looked like. But in that instant’s lull it seemed he’d lost whatever conversational thread there’d been between them.
Esther was still standing at the doors, neither going out nor coming in.
“You wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette, would you?” she said finally, looking right at him. “I mean, if you could spare one.”
That was how the day had got started. Alex did indeed have cigarettes, but up in his apartment, and although he’d considered lying – he didn’t like the idea of giving a cigarette to someone who was clearly Not Well – it finally ended up, despite his protestations that he simply fetch one for her, that Esther followed him to his place to get one herself. There weren’t any more awkward silences from then on: in the elevator Esther launched at once into a disarming rush of revealing personal anecdote, so that by the time they got out at Alex’s floor he was dizzy with excess information.
“What about you? I don’t even know your name.”
“Alex. It’s Alex.” Then he added, stupidly, “Alex Fratarcangeli.”
“Oh! Really? Frater – oh! That’s interesting.”
“Don’t worry,” he said quickly. “I can’t even pronounce it myself.”
Alex’s apartment was on the seventeenth floor, which had been the chief selling point when he’d rented the place, some feeling still surging in him – hope? vertigo? – each time he opened his door to the expanse of cityscape and sky through his living room windows. He’d left the radio on, tuned to the CBC: there was an interview coming up with the prime minister that Alex was perversely anxious to catch, largely because he despised the prime minister, from the very depth of his being, despised every false word that dropped from his big-chinned false mouth. He could hear the interview coming on as he unlocked the door, Peter Gzowski’s honeyed coo and then the mellow low of the prime minister, false, false, although Peter, and this was the side of him that Alex couldn’t stomach, simply carried on in his fawning amiability as if the man was actually to be taken seriously.
Esther was still talking. So far, Alex had learned that she was a student, like he was, at Concordia, though he hadn’t been able to gather in exactly what; that she’d grown up in Côte St. Luc, a possibly Jewish neighbourhood somewhere on the outskirts of the city, though he couldn’t have said exactly where; that she lived in the building because it had a pool in it, though he couldn’t quite reconcile this detail with her condition, which seemed to involve some issues of motor control. The fact was he was finding it hard to attend to her, not only because he was a bit overwhelmed by her barrage of talk and because he couldn’t quite help trying to catch the interview going on in the background, but because of a host of other matters clamouring for attention at the back of his brain: his appointment with Dr. Klein, for which he somehow already seemed destined to be late; his class at the Refugee Centre, for which he’d hardly prepared; his final lesson at Berlitz with Félix, his cash cow, and the concomitant prospect of a depressingly low-income summer; his theory exam the following day, for which he’d hardly studied. Then there was the phone call home he had to make, the post-exam party he had to host, the grant forms he had to fill out, and in the middle and not-so-far distance the questions he did not even dare to give a shape to at the moment, though they were the pit above which everything else seemed precariously suspended.
In the background, the prime minister, having dodged the subject of Libya, was going on about Chernobyl, trying to cast himself as the calm leader in troubled times. Please, Peter, please, Alex thought, ask him a tough question. Though in truth, Alex revered Peter: he credited him with his own discovery of Canada, which had happened, ironically, in the couple of years since Alex had left Canada proper for the foreign country of Quebec. And he revered him despite his occasional fawning, his boyish stutter, his too-frequent feel-good pieces on apple baking or native spiritualism or peewee hockey; and also despite, or maybe because of, the comments you sometimes read, usually buried by timid editors in the last paragraphs of lengthy profiles, that the instant the mike was turned off – though Alex could understand this perfectly: the mike was who he was, what he gave everything to – he turned into an unmitigated bastard.
Esther, who by now had settled herself on his couch, was explaining to him the notion of something she called “an exacerbation.” With a start, Alex realized she had been telling him about her illness. It began to sink in that she’d actually named it and he’d let that crucial bit of information get by him. Somehow, she’d managed to slip the thing in as if it were just a casual aside: Oh, by the way, I have blahblah.
“So what about you, Alex? What do you do?”
“I’m at Concordia, too,” he said, realizing, guiltily, that he ought to have brought this up earlier. “I mean, I study there.”
“Really? You don’t say! What a coincidence!”
In fact, it wasn’t much of a coincidence at all: probably half the people in the building were students at Concordia, whose hub, the infamously ugly Hall Building, stood just kitty-corner to them.
When Alex tried to explain his program his description struck him as even more convoluted and opaque than Esther’s had been of her own. He’d initially been admitted to the university under Interdisciplinary Studies, in a mix of literary theory and evolutionary biology, of all things. But then the university had decided it couldn’t handle such a broad crossing of disciplines and he’d ended up in the English Department.
“I guess I’m trying to find the way to bring the arts and sciences together,” he said. “You know, a sort of Grand Unified Theory.”
“Oh – you mean – art and science –”
The shadow had crossed her again.
“That’s just a fancy way of saying I don’t really know what I’m doing.”
Alex had long ago handed over the cigarette Esther had come for, but she had placed it carefully in the little pink handbag in padded silk that she carried over her shoulder, struggling a bit with the clasp, though he hadn’t known whether to offer help. To have with her cappuccino, she’d said, which was where she’d been heading when Alex had run into her.
“Do you really think it’s dangerous to go out?”
“I dunno, the rain’s probably all evaporated by now. Anyway, I doubt we’re any safer inside.”
She had risen and stood leaning on her cane at his door. Alex didn’t like to admit to his relief at finally seeing her go – they hadn’t been together more than twenty minutes, yet he felt exhausted.
In the background, the prime minister’s interview was winding to a close.
Well, Peter, I know Canadians just love what you’re doing here.
“Say,” Esther said, “you know what? I have an idea. I could buy you a cappuccino, in exchange for the cigarette. I mean, if you’re not busy.”
Alex’s heart sank. It seemed unfair somehow to brandish his excuses at her, exactly because he had such good ones. It was that face, the transparency of it, the bit of desperation he saw in it now. She’d met a man, it seemed to say – even if it was as poor a specimen as Alex – and wanted him to like her.
“That would be great,” he said, “I’d love that,” feeling himself draw a little closer to the pit.
The entire mood between them shifted with Alex’s acceptance. Esther’s bright, false, coming-on personality replaced with a kind of childlike triumphalism. In the elevator, she hooked an arm in his and batted her eyes at him with exaggerated coquettishness.
“I guess you’ll just have to help a po’ little sick girl like me,” she said, then added “Ha, ha, ha,” to make clear she was joking. Alex had instinctively tensed when she’d taken hold of him as though expecting some jolt, some clammy frisson of diseased flesh, but in fact her grip was warm and firm. She had taken possession of him, it seemed to say, and would do what was needed to hold on to her claim.
Outside, they found the rain had indeed misted off into the ether, though whether the air hummed with evil ions in its wake, Alex couldn’t have said. In Sweden, radiation had reached a hundred times the normal level, and people were taking pills to protect their thyroid. No one knew if that was the worst of it – on the news reports so far, there hadn’t been a single image from the site. Instead, they kept replaying the clip from Soviet TV where a matronly anchorwoman, posed against a background of washed-out blue, had given the first official announcement of the thing, in four bland, unhelpful sentences.
Everything about the day, however, belied Alex’s sense of threat: the sun was out, the air was crystalline, and winter was gone, gone. There’d been ice on the ground only two weeks before, right into mid-April, the bane of Montreal living. But then a warm wind had come up and thawed the city overnight. The trees in the little church park at St. James the Apostle already had the intimation of leaves, a flock of something, starlings or sparrows or finches, chattering in their limbs.
Then there was Esther, for whom Chernobyl seemed little more than a conversation point. It was indeed true that everyone knew Esther: there was hardly a person they’d passed on the way out who hadn’t greeted her, and then once they were on the street all the shopkeepers called out to her as well, from the little depanneur on the ground floor of their building, from the hairdresser’s next door, from the little sandwich shop at the corner of St. Catherine. Almost to a one they winked at her for the good fortune of having a man on her arm. If Esther saw any condescension in this she didn’t show it, refusing nothing, no attention or offering.
“Oh, that’s Ilie,” she said, “he’s the one who usually gives me my cigarettes,” and, “That’s Claire, she gives me free haircuts.”
To his surprise, Alex actually found himself liking the attention they were getting. The world seemed different with Esther by his side: he’d hardly even noticed the sandwich shop on the corner before, or, for that matter, the church park. He also had never been to the Crescent Street strip, where Esther was leading him. It was only a couple of blocks over from their building, but had always seemed hopelessly tawdry and touristy next to his former haunts on the Plateau. Today, though, in the spring sun, radiation or no, he couldn’t understand why he’d avoided the place – it looked so sprightly and European and gay, with its little cafés all with their tables out front and their fancy railings and stylishly dressed servers.
The place Esther brought him to, however, was one of the cheesier ones, a glitzy bar called Chez Sud done up in an overwrought tropical motif like some Club Med resort, their cappuccinos actually coming out with little coloured umbrellas on them. Normally, Alex would never have ordered a cappuccino; it somehow irked his ethnic sensibilities, this passion everyone suddenly had for them. But he had to admit he liked the taste.
“I love this place,” Esther said. “I come here all the time.” And indeed it was clear from how everyone greeted her that she was well-known here, though the waitress gave Alex a conspiratorial smile behind Esther’s back as if to sympathize with his having got saddled with
Alex pulled his chair a bit closer to Esther’s.
“It’s just great,” he said.
Alex had planned to quickly down his coffee and then beg off back home to his work. But he wasn’t quite as anxious to be going as he ought to have been: the sun was shining and he was out here in the world, with Esther.
“It’s very interesting what you were telling me,” Esther said. “About the arts and sciences. That’s very interesting.”
“Oh, well. Maybe not so interesting.”
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Book Description Anchor Canada, 2009. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0385663617