Metaphysical thrillers are hard to pull off. Witness all the attempts to duplicate Tony Hillerman and Dean Koontz; many novels barely get to the starting gate before they are dragged down by unbelievability, hokey hocus-pocus and underwritten characters.
Metaphysical historical thrillers are even harder to do, belonging as they do to that arcane realm of hyper-literature where the air is rarefied and the concepts spin slowly in the crosswinds of critical theory. These books are practically the exclusive province of European writers, most prominent of whom is Umberto Eco, the semiotician-author of "The Name of the Rose" and "Foucault's Pendulum."
Now Mexican novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II, who has reaped acclaim with his series of highly atmospheric noirs featuring the one-eyed Mexico City detective Hector Belascoaran Shayne, is laying claim to Eco territory with his latest book, "Leonardo's Bicycle."
Taibo combines a fascinating account of the dog days of Leonardo da Vinci's life and the Renaissance master's unheralded discovery of the contraption we know as the bicycle with three other stories that weave a spell across the landscape and the centuries.
One of the stories deals with the investigation into the assault on a young American female basketball player who was kidnaped for her kidney; another features an ex-CIA agent who was the last Westerner to exit the U.S. Embassy compound during the fall of Saigon; the third chronicles the life and deeds of a mysterious anarchist assassin, Angel del Hierro (loosely, Iron Angel in Spanish), in 1920s Barcelona.
All the stories turn on the quest for truth and fortune, the one being the corollary of the other in Taibo's universe. The searcher in the first non-Leonardo narrative is Jose Daniel Fierro, a Mexican novelist with a severe case of writer's block. He is, not coincidentally, the grandson of the del Hierro and presumed author of the other stories we are reading.
Fierro becomes so obsessed with the plight of the basketball player that he apparently journeys to Ciudad Juarez on the U.S. border to find out who might have wanted to steal her kidney, hoping thereby to win another part of her for himself--her heart, of course. I say apparently because Fierro's narrative is written in the conditional throughout, making us wonder whether all this really happened or whether it was just the invention of the fictional novelist himself. Thus he writes:
"So I might walk along Lopez Mateos Avenue, the other end of Lincoln Avenue, enjoying the neon glow on my face like the sun the rich enjoy in the tropics . . . when a beggar with leprosy will get in my way stretching out his hand to beg, and without giving me time to give him some loose change, he might suddenly say to me:
" 'You are trying to find out what happened to the gringas . Midnight cowboy, the bookhound. I've read every page of every one of your books, really cool. . . . When I could still read.' "
In the second story, the former spook Jerry Milligan (the name an apparent takeoff on jazz player Gerry Mulligan) hunts high and low for a shadowy Bulgarian who stole out of Saigon in 1975 with millions of dollars' worth of heroin Milligan had left in his care. It takes Jerry almost 20 years to find his Bulgarian.
Finally, in the third narrative, a diminutive journalist, Antonio "the Flea" Amador, investigates the presumed murder of the anarchist Angel del Hierro, believing that publishing the truth about the affair will cause the downfall of the right-wing clique that rules Barcelona.
It all sounds like more fun than it really is, since the novel's constant shifts in narrative are confusing and the connection between the stories is not readily apparent until halfway through the book. But when Taibo is writing about Mexico or imagining the last days of Saigon, his writing sparkles, drawing us in with the unfettered power of his imagination, sounding like a strange combination of Graham Greene and Elmore Leonard.
However, for most of "Leonardo's Bicycle" the reader is confused, wondering where the author is leading and what possible connection there could be among the parallel stories. In the absence of a narrative link, the reader is left to ponder the thematic similarities of the different stories, the most prominent being the fatalism of history, the belief that no matter how heroic our efforts to change the course of events, we are destined to fail. All we can obtain, and only if we try with all our might, is our private happiness.
So Jerry gets only part of his money back and that solely in exchange for a fatal favor; Amador "the Flea" dies without succeeding in deposing the right-wing clique; the novelist Fierro does find out who ordered the theft of the basketball player's kidney, but by then the bad guy is dead; and da Vinci, of course, accomplished only a fraction of what he dreamed.
One wonders whether Taibo's fatalism is a reflection of Mexico itself, a place where efforts at social change seem futile, where the ruling party looms over the landscape like one of the fearsome-faced idols of Tenochtitlan.
Unfortunately Taibo is not writing about Mexico exclusively in this book, and that is why, among other reasons, "Leonardo's Bicycle" has to be considered an honorable failure. Perhaps that is enough, though, for as Taibo writes, quoting Leonardo: "Ambitious people who are content with the gift of life and the world's beauty suffer the penitence of ruining their lives without ever possessing the usefulness and beauty of the world."