Before I’d even started reading this 441 page chunkster, I knew I was going to enjoy it. The echoes of Tintin in the artwork providing a hint of the adventure to come, and the title, the Pandora’s box of nasties literary goodies.
The first chapter is one of the most entertaining I have read in many a novel. Set in pre-World-War-1 London, a 19-year-old impoverished would-be author, Thomas Thomson, is employed as a ghost-writer to pen a pulp novel for the famous Dr. Flag. The title is “Pandora in the Congo” and the outline is both racist and ridiculous. Against his better judgment, the ghost-writer does as he is bid and his work is published. Thereafter, Thomas discovers that he has been subcontracted by a ghost-writer, in turn employed by a ghost-writer struggling to meet the excessing demands of the fraudulent Dr. Flag. The arm of his exploitation is long!
Despite this, he comes to the attention of a lawyer, Edward Norton, who is looking for someone to ghostwrite the memoirs of his client, Marcus Garvey, currently accused of the murder of two British aristocrats in the African jungle. The lawyer feels that publication of Garvey’s version of events prior to the trial is the only chance his client has of escaping the noose.
Garvey’s story forms the main course of Piñol’s novel. African adventure au Haggard with echoes of colonial excess and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Science-fictional homage to both Jules Verne and H G Wells involving a journey to the centre of the earth and an underground race of six-fingered, hot-skinned Tectons. With a tender-hearted love story thrown in for good measure.
In a parallel stream, Thomas tells of his humdrum existence as one of the unprivileged in class-conscious Edwardian London, living in a boarding house terrorised by a shell-less tortoise. (Yes, you really read that. She’s called Marie-Antoinette.) Thomas understands that Norton is exploiting him as did Dr. Flag but he doesn’t understand exactly how. I’m not going to reveal all but I will give you some clues. It’s ingenious. it’s ruthless and it’s extremely manipulative. Oh yes, check out the character Edward Norton played in the film Primal Fear. Not all the cultural references in this book are from literature.
To enjoy this novel you have to suspend belief in many places because Piñol does stretch things into the absurd. Neither does his game-playing stop with the multitudinous homage to authors of the Edwardian era or the names of his characters. His metafictional novel contains a book within a book. If fact, it’s a rewrite of a book within a book, 3 layers of fiction thus mirroring the 3 layers of ghost-writing from the opening chapter. It transpires that Thomas, in old age, is rewriting the book that made his name, i.e Garvey’s African Adventure. But why? Can we trust him? Layers of meaning and layers of doubt. But don’t let any of this put you off. Forget the cleverness. Read it for the entertainment value. It’s not perfect. In places it takes too long. However, without a shadow of a doubt, it is an absolute riot!