Sunday, June 8, 2014

Review: "The Elixir of Immortality" by Gabi Gleichmann

On the heels of another compulsively readable epic in Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole, I was even more surprised when I started reading Gabi Gleichmann’s 750 page historical novel The Elixir of Immortality, and found that it was the exact same kind of book: one that made you carry it around everywhere you went just in case you were stranded somewhere without proper entertainment. I knew almost nothing about this book when I picked it up, only doing so since it fit all the requirements for my reading list this year. T was even more surprising to me when I found out that Gleichmann is a Hungarian writer, a country whose fiction is some of the most boring I have read, evidenced by the books of writers such as Peter Nadas and Laszlo Krasznahorkai. The Elixir of Immortality shares none of the traits with those books except its length, but even that is something a reader will find necessary when you find out how long the timespan of this story is. On the surface, it is the story of one famous families struggle, that of the Spinozas, with the changes in history, and how, even if they do everything to avoid it, gets caught up in the eyes of many of the world’s most famous historical upheavals, mostly with bloody results that end in the death of a loved one. This is reason enough to check this book out, since it is always interesting, handling it’s many side and temporary characters with ease that will help you forget that sometimes it is hard to match things up. But at a deeper level, one that I only understood once I finished the book’s final pages was that it is a story about loneliness and the attempts we make, failed or successful, to attract people into our lives. The story we are reading is one being written down by Ari Spinoza, the last in the blood line of this family who have existed for almost a thousand years. He is childless, and has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer that he has gotten from years of smoking. In an effort to leave something behind, he starts to tell this story, which his estranged great-uncle told him and his brother Sasha as children. It begins in the year 1192, when Baruch Spinoza, not the philosopher, comes upon a grizzled old man who says that he Moses, and entrusts in him the secrets of immortality, which he writes down in an old book that will be passed down through history, including events like the French Revolution and the two world wars, with each generation suffering some kind of tragedy (especially if they have a large nose). A lot of those events are the book’s surprise which I won’t spoil, with the last section, perhaps the quietest and saddest, wrapping everything up as nicely as any recent book I have come across. Even if the length might deter you, although I hope not, this book will reward you greatly.

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