Waiting For Columbus by Thomas Trofimuk
Doubleday, New York, 2009
Borrowed from the library.
Consuela is a nurse working at the Sevilla Institute for the Mentally Ill. Her days are long, her nights somewhat lonely. One day a man is brought to the Institute. He was found in the straits of Gibraltar, battered and bruised and clearly delusional. He believes he is Christopher Columbus. Consuela and those working with her must help this man discover who he really is.
The passage from freedom to incarceration is never an easy one. The passage from an unacknowleged, untested sanity to a diagnosed insanity is equally problematic. The first time Nurse Consuela Emma Lopez entered his world, it was with nervousness-with the trepidation of a sparrow pecking the ground a few meters in front of a perfectly motionless cat. He was immobile on a bed in the admitting area, restrained and drugged. He’d arrived at the institute kicking and screaming. From page 1.
I was hooked from the first paragraph. Trofimuk has created a character so well drawn that it is easy to forget he is not Christopher Columbus. Those around him struggle to find the truth, yet fear the truth may cause him to disappear into madness forever.
This novel is about the stories we tell ourselves and each other, sometimes out of a sense of fun or drama, sometimes from necessity. It is even more about how we listen.
One the morning of the liturigal feast of Saint Pammachius, Columbus is in a lawn chair, overlooking the garden. He is wearing his standard institute-issue maroon robe and gray socks. He looks like any number of other patients wandering around the courtyards and gardens surrounding the institute. He’s speaking to Consuela over his left shoulder. “I have to tell you, poeple used to roll up on the beach on a regular basis-well, chewed-up bodies anyway. When I lived in Palos we’d find them all the time-stinking and rotten. Even the foulest of birds or animals wouldn’t touch them.”
“I’m sorry?” She really was not in the mood for a story. She was unfocused-half watching the ducks in the pond, half keeping an eye on him. She’d rather be curled up in bed reading.
“Dead people. On the beach. The result of shipwrecks.” From page 55.
It’s hard to tell you more without giving too much away. There is a deep knowledge of history in the stories Columbus tells but that history is combined with the present day. The stories are wonderful, but the interweaving of past and present is strangely disconcerting. Trofimuk uses this device to give the sense of someone running away into the past to avoid the trauma of the present. How one’s inner world can seem much, much safer then the outer one. It is a wonderful way to tell the story of Columbus’s madness and of his recovery.
I want to thank Jill at Fizzy Thoughts for introducing me to Waiting For Columbus.