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Strange creatures: Nicholas Christopher's 'The Bestiary'
The Dial Press: 308 pp., $25
With the hunt for an exotic lost book as a story line, one might assume that Nicholas Christopher's "The Bestiary" is in the same family as "The Da Vinci Code" and all its siblings. The novel certainly shimmers with antique lore and mystery like many of these, but it would be too insulting to call this accomplished tale just another nugget in that vein of "edutainment" that Dan Brown and his ilk have strip-mined so completely.
Although Christopher poses an intriguing mystery -- what happened to an ancient book of mythical animals called "The Caravan Bestiary" after it had passed through many hands over the centuries? -- he hasn't sacrificed everything, including characterization, to answer that question. Hardly. Long before we're ever interested in the elusive book, he gives us the poignant, heartbreaking circumstances of Xeno Atlas, and we care about him more than about that quest.
Growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s, Xeno endured so many emotional losses, so much deprivation, that it's a wonder he didn't fall apart. His mother, Marina, died during his birth, something his father, Theodore, a fierce Cretan sailor, reduced to simple terms. "I had lived and she -- the great love of his life -- had died. And he resented it bitterly," Xeno tells us.
To this add the resentment of Marina's family: Her kin sneer at Marina's choice of a husband -- inferior in social status, religion and just about everything else -- and treat the boy as the vulgar product of a union they didn't approve of. The hurt doesn't end there: Xeno's beloved grandmother dies, and he is sent to a Maine boarding school, far from two people who have loved him -- his friend Bruno and Bruno's sister, Lena. Cut adrift, Xeno exists in a state of emotional exile. Drifters of many sorts have figured in Christopher's earlier novels. How does your life have meaning, Christopher asks, when you've been deprived of the personal attachments most of us take for granted?
One answer, Christopher suggested in 2004's "Crossing the Equator," a selection of his poetry, rests in the imagination's ability to appreciate fleeting moments of beauty. Art is a refuge in difficult times: In the poem "Robert Desnos in Havana, 1928," the French surrealist poet, deported to the concentration camps in World War II, "records his dreams / of mermaids in notebooks bound for the furnaces . . . ." Though his work will be destroyed one day, it sustains him when he needs it most.
Similarly, Xeno is sustained when he needs it most by dreams of "The Caravan Bestiary," an "illuminated book filled with all manner of unnatural & fantastical beasts refused entry to the Ark by Noah when he set sail in the Great Flood." "I just can't get it out of my head," Xeno tells one of his teachers. His affinity for this book and all its outcast creatures -- including the majestic griffin and the lethal basilisk -- is touchingly clear to us. Xeno recognizes that studying the book's history is a surrogate for the family history he's been refused. "The dream of finding it . . . had always been a refuge," he says. The book "helped me to tolerate the harsher disappointments -- and worse -- of this world."
"Worse" refers to the Vietnam War. At age 21, Xeno is drafted and stationed just 25 miles from the Cambodian border. As he's taking tactical plans to U.S. forces in the field, Xeno gets caught between enemy troops and American fighter planes that decimate those troops -- and almost kill him as well. Yet his protection of that dossier (aptly code-named Operation Phoenix) turns him into a hero for the military -- and a villain to peace demonstrators on his return to the States. Life has intervened with his quest; Xeno is Galahad, interrupted. But further isolation -- he turns his back on America and moves to France, taking up his research again -- seems only to sharpen his appetite to find the bestiary.
Xeno travels around the Mediterranean, learning more about his family and about the father who never gave him anything except financial support and, after his death, a freighter named the Makara. Xeno's life also intersects with Lena's. Like him, Lena is preoccupied with animals -- not mythical ones but endangered species. When she and her animal liberation group need to transport a menagerie of beasts threatened by warring factions in West Africa, Xeno puts the Makara at her service. Together they set sail with a cargo of animals, biblical allusion and all.
In this, as with other symbolic associations in this novel, Christopher has a light touch. He's a poet, after all, and critics have praised the subtleties of his style. It gives nothing away to say that in Lena, Xeno discovers the only home he's ever needed: "We were alone as we would ever be, like stars on some remote latitude that shine on no one. We could shine for one another . . . . "
On the matter of the quest, of course, silence is required. Xeno traces the bestiary's arrival to 14th century Venice as a gift from a French envoy to the doge. It remained in the doge's family as an odd heirloom, then began another journey. You'll have to read for yourself what happened to it next. Xeno's quest is accomplished but in an unexpected and entirely satisfying way. Christopher defies the thriller formulas; the book ends without gimmicks. "The Bestiary" is the very best example of what happens when antique lore and a compelling human story are in the hands of the right novelist. •
Nick Owchar is deputy editor of Book Review.