by Pablo De Santis
translated to English by Lisa Carter
Harper Perennial (2010)
This is an instant where a language barrier precludes me from discovering an author until their work is translated and brought to our shore. Voltaire's Calligrapher was first published nearly a decade ago, but now it gets an English release through Harper Perennial. And if this novel is emblematic of the rest of De Santis' work, then I may just have to keep an eye out for more in the future.
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.