Voltaire's Calligrapher: A Novel Paperback – Sep 16 2010
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“While the prose is richly reminiscent of Umberto Eco, the headlong pace of this dark fantasy--combining elements of mystery, historical fiction, horror and the splinter genre clockpunk--will let readers swallow the entrancing story in a single gulp.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))
“Those who believe that calligraphy is a sedentary art have not yet read Voltaire’s Calligrapher, Pablo De Santis’ wonderful novel. De Santis has written a historical thriller that isn’t the usual guided tour of the past...His narrative is deliciously and admirably sinister.” (La Nación Revista, Buenos Aires)
“Voltaire’s Calligrapher reminds us of Alexander Dumas’ novels because it never underestimates the reader’s intelligence.” (La Voz del Interior, Córdoba)
From the Back Cover
Dalessius is twenty when he comes to work for one of the Enlightenment’s most famous minds, the author and philosopher Voltaire. As the great man’s calligrapher, Dalessius becomes witness to many wonders—and finds himself in the middle of a secret battle between the malevolent remnants of the all-but-dead Dark Ages and the progressive elements of the modernage. The calligrapher’s role in this shadowy conflict will carry him to many perilous places— through the gates of sinister castles and to the doors of a bizarre bordello; toward life-and death confrontations with inventive henchmen, ingenious mechanical execution devices, poisonous fish, and murderous automatons. As the conspiracy to halt the Enlightenment’s astonishing progress intensifies, young Dalessius’s courage—as well as Voltaire’s unique cunning and wit—are put to the ultimate test as they strive to ensure the survival of the future.See all Product Description
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Fraught with gothic accoutrements, dark castles, disappearing ink, the whispered threats of powerful prelates, Dalessius enters a murky world where political acumen exceeds religious conviction and a bishop's words are forged in secret. The author's love of language imbues this unexpected thriller with a haunting beauty as images rise from the pages, tactile, the sometimes rancid scent of inks, the sharpening of points on stone, the venom of suspicion, the ecstasy of love and the molding of marble into human form. There is the sinister rattling of keys that precludes danger, months spent in the cave-like seclusion of a candle-lit room, pen scratching the dark red of blood on parchment, a passing acquaintance with an executioner dabbling with the 16th century Halifax gibbet, the illusion of truth and the jab of a quill as an instrument of murder.
The aging Voltaire depends upon his scribe to carry out his business, the boy insinuating himself into the winding alleys of Paris in search of his love while evading those who would twist him to their own ends. The written word becomes the Holy Grail, a mark on paper as the printing press apes the stylized lines of human touch, a forgery of soul. Fascinating, menacing and poetic, the Dark Ages resists the illumination of the Enlightenment in this ancient battle of old and new, a young man's heart forfeit as ideas clash around him. Luan Gaines/2010.
Trained as a calligrapher at the best schools and with a desire to be the "greatest such the world has known", Dalessius' hopes conflict with his uncle's wishes who runs a mortuary transport service from Paris and wants nothing to do with his free-spirited nephew's ideas. Our hero has to get shady jobs that land him into trouble when a lucky break sends Dalessius to Voltaire's refuge at Ferney where the "great man" alternates between hoping the king will let him go back to Paris and preparing to jump over the border into Switzerland to safety and away from the specter of the Bastille or worse .
Since the philosopher needs eyes and ears on the ground and Dalessius is young and resourceful, he is sent to "infiltrate" the Church and expose a plot against the Enlightenment. In the process, Dalessius makes friends with an executioner (retired) and works for various creepy guys, encountering lots of strange stuff that I will leave the reader to discover.
The first thing I noticed about the arc of "Voltaire's Calligrapher" is how physically thin it was. But the content is fully satisfying and offers a rich and complete reading experience. Each word counts and the visual description of the places Dallesius travels in or to - from the mortuary coach, to a "doomed" house, to places of execution, cemeteries, sinister dwellings, but also fairs, artists' workrooms and opulent churches and monasteries - are one of the main strength of the novel. Add to this, the exotic details about calligraphy, automatons and the search for an effective means of mechanical executions among other stuff the author explores which make reading the novel worth by themselves, though the story is quite interesting too with several twists and turns.
"Voltaire's Calligrapher" has also some memorable action sequences which I greatly enjoyed though its strength lie in its "exoticism in a familiar setting" and of course in the wonderful writing style of the author that is conveyed quite well even in translation. I would have liked the book to be longer since I would have enjoyed spending more time with Dalessius, but the novel does not feel rushed or short in any way. The one slight negative for me was that despite the title, Voltaire appears mostly behind the scenes so we really do not get to see him too much, but Dalesius and his friends and enemies make up for that.
"Voltaire's Calligrapher" (A+) shows how one can write a book that is exotic and familiar at the same time and that uses the innate "interestingness" of speculative fiction at its best, while staying within the bounds of historical possibility.
It's a strange little novel, but for me that was its charm. De Santis could have easily offered a straight historical piece, following the adventures of 18th century calligrapher Dalessius in his employ to Voltaire, but there is a fantastical sci-fi element thrown into the mix that has the novel skirting steampunk territory.
Dalessius is a young calligrapher looking to make his way in a world that is gradually rendering his profession obsolete thanks to the printing press. He does manage to find employment with none other than Voltaire, who is tottering off into antiquity as well. Voltaire seems to have as many enemies as admirers, and Dalessius meets both camps as he does Voltaire's bidding--as he spends more time abroad in the philosopher's name than at the philosopher's side. As he roams the countryside plying his trade, he befriends an executioner who also finds his trade threatened by progress, and an enchanting woman named Clarissa with a sheltered existence and under the thumb of her father, a crafter of automatons (lifelike mechanical creations).
The story begins, however, years after Voltaire's death as Dalessius writes a memoir of sorts while on the road--and carrying Voltaire's heart in a jar. That is what I'd call a hook.
It's the automatons that provide the sci-fi element to the tale. They don't dominate the story, but rather provide a allegorical flavor. I'd find them the most intriguing aspect of the novel, but it's Dalessius and his adept skills with inks and quills that had me spellbound at times. As many of his activities can be construed as espionage, there's a Bondian element to his use of inks that can disappear, reappear, and even poison.
It's a short novel that feels broader than it really is. There are moments that are sped through, where I would have preferred a little more attention afforded to them, but overall it's an entertaining work. It's a book that defies genre, which I'm sure is intentional. De Santis seems quite comfortable blending history with fantastical elements and the end result feels pretty seamless. If you're looking for straight-up historical fiction, you'll get more than you bargained for.
The writing was for me the most fascinating aspect. It's so full of wonderfully apt and descriptive word pictures. I wondered how many of them owe more to the translator's ability than the author's talent, but for me they spoke so perfectly. I promise you there are some gems of sentences, quite exceptional in their use of words and imagery
It's a very short little piece, and the chapters are little more than three or so pages each. It's a series of rapid "hits" that advance the story, but as a reader you always feel that as each new chapter starts, you just may not be in full possession of all the facts you need to understand it, or know what is truly going on.
This does not seem to matter in any way at all, ...indeed it's part of its appeal as you try to piece just where each new instalment fits into the overall story.
What is it about?
Well it's a most enigmatic piece and certainly more than a simple narrative of the calligrapher and his strange and dark mission, ...or is it?
The beauty of the writing suffuses this tale with a mystery and intrigue that makes you suspect deeper revelations, but is it really an allegorical commentary on the power of writing (calligraphy) in itself as a driving and defining force, having a life of its own that goes far beyond what the words themselves actually say?
I enjoyed this short novel immensely, ....there are some very dark and somewhat confronting situations, but the writing never goes for the sensational, but always delivers such compelling and wonderful turns of phrase as to make one totally envious of its masterful construction.
If you admire the style and ability of good writing in itself I'm sure you will find something to enjoy from this quick read, whose vivid images will linger far longer in your imagination that the short time it takes to read.
And what is the true purpose of the one small anachronism as the protagonist describes the buildings of mid 18th century Paris being shaken by passing "cars"?
Or is this simply a translation error? Perhaps she (the translator) just meant to write "cart" afterall. Never less than "enigmatic".
Normally, I would recommend someone read this in one sitting over a cup of the best dark coffee blend they have. I didn’t do that. I spent a week sucking down a chapter at a time – and his chapters are only a page to three at best.
There are castles and print shops, automatons, and poisonous fish… dark corners and forbidden candlelight… Oh my! What terrifying fun! You won’t regret diving into the adventure.