'Pandora' frees power of story

  • Article by: CONNIE NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 30, 2009 - 2:31 PM

A rip-roaring adventure story that moves from pre-World War I England to the Congo. Populated with eccentric characters, this lively novel is practically a parody of itself -- and that's a good thing.

book jacket: "Pandora in the Congo" by Albert Sanchez Pinol

About halfway through "Pandora in the Congo" (Canongate, 441 pages, $15.95), I had to stop and ask myself what kind of book I was reading.

The book -- by Albert Sanchez Piñol, translated by Mara Faye Lethem -- had started out as a zany, wonderfully entertaining story about a ghost writer to a ghost writer to a ghost writer in pre-World War I England. From the first engaging page, I'd been introduced to a host of quirky characters. There was the ghost writer twice removed (a young, impressionable lad who pumps out a pulp novel a week), his miserly landlady ("a thin, stiff, woman, her back always straight and tight as a pipe") and her pet (a vicious and shell-less turtle named Marie Antoinette). There was the Irish tenant (who loved his seven -- or was it eight? -- children and farted loudly in the privacy of his room), the impeccable but somehow sinister attorney and the unfortunate manservant, now stuck in an English prison awaiting trial for the murder of two mean-spirited, upper-crust Englishmen while on an expedition in the Congo.

And that's just for starters.

As odd as it may sound, it was oddly believable. Until our ghost writer is hired to tell the servant's side of what really happened in the Congo. Then, the next thing I know I'm reading about an underground race of warriors named the Tectons, who are really to blame for the grisly deaths of the Englishmen.

Now, wait a minute.

I stopped reading. I flipped to the first page again. Was this a mistake? A parody? Or was it magical realism (a once-popular genre, I remember from my days as an English major, that combines the fantastic with the normal)? The book was written by a Spanish anthropologist and translated from the Catalan. Did that offer any clues?

I did stop reading. But not for long. See, I was in the middle of a fierce Tecton invasion and I had to find out if two English bad boys and their lowly servant could save the Congo -- and possibly the whole world! -- from these machine-like, stone-boring beings.

Don't worry, I'm not going to give it away, because then you might not read this book. And you really should. I could give you a whole list of reasons why. Aside from being great fun to read, this book parodies pulp fiction and manages to poke fun at literature. It's a cleverly crafted allegory about World War I and an endearing story of unrequited love. But the real reason to read this book -- and not put it down -- is because it's a spellbinding story about the power of story.

Connie Nelson is the Star Tribune's Home + Garden editor.

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