Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sleight of hand

Line between fact and fiction disappears as Houdini's tale unfolds

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Steven Galloway is a master storyteller. The critically acclaimed The Cellist of Sarajevo (2008), a novelization of real-life events set during the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s, quickly became an international bestseller and the kind of book that travels from hand to hand until the cover is worn ragged.

History, in the wrong hands, can dry up into lists -- dates, names, numbers. Part of Sarajevo's magic lies in Galloway's ability to spin story gold out of the raw materials of the past.

Galloway sets his shoulder to the wheel of time again with The Confabulist, a fictional meditation on the life of Harry Houdini, and the man who killed him (twice), Martin Strauss. In alternating, non-linear chapters, Galloway flips from Houdini's to Strauss's timelines in relating the extraordinary account of Houdini's life -- and death.

As Strauss is telling the tale, it's as much his story as it is Houdini's. But from the first pages of the novel, when a present-day Strauss is told he is suffering from tinnitus and a degenerative psychological condition that will render his memories questionable, The Confabulist's narration takes a turn for the untrustworthy.

Strauss is a classic anti-hero with a long list of dodgy qualities, from a weakness for substance abuse to crippling passivity. But as flawed heroes are far more interesting than untouchable ones, the miserable Strauss quickly locks down the reader's sympathies.

To make things even more delightful, Strauss personally views himself as an honourable bard, relating the truest version of events: "The only way is to start at the beginning and tell it as I believe it to be, not as I want it to be," he asserts earnestly. The tale he relates is extraordinary indeed.

Stripped to factual bare bones, Houdini's biography is fascinating. The child of immigrant parents, Houdini struggled for years to establish himself as a magician, until his better-than-usual abilities with sleight of hand and a genius for locks revamped his career -- as an escape artist.

With his tiny, lovely wife, Bess, Houdini travelled the world performing wonders, until a fatal blow to the abdomen carried him beyond the final curtain.

It's already a good story, but Galloway has no problem jazzing it up even more. In Strauss's version of events, Houdini is a spy who bedazzles the Romanovs with his "magical" abilities and befuddles the chief of Russia's secret police with seemingly miraculous escapes. Not only that, he becomes the avowed enemy of a network of power-hungry spiritualists, Arthur Conan Doyle among them, until they begin to seek his life in payment for the trouble he's caused.

In an afterword, Galloway writes that both Houdini's and Doyle's words are drawn from the historical record, so The Confabulist does have its accurate elements -- for example, the magician's beef with spiritualists' parlour tricks in manipulating emotion to amp up their illusions.

As the pages turn, however, The Confabulist begins to feel more and more complex and unreliable as a historical account. As the narrative strands become tangled -- Strauss's life and loves, Houdini's escapes -- veracity is exchanged for colourful illusion.

While Galloway's writing is clear to a fault and his nicely timed pacing keeps up the story's momentum, The Confabulist errs on the side of levity rather than gravity, which cheats the reader of experiencing some of the real drama inherent in Houdini's remarkable life.

Occasionally cumbersome flashbacks and long passages of backstory, as well as the novel's complex non-linear structure, can also have a bewildering effect. But the troubled Strauss has some beautiful things to say about memory and the role of truth-telling in understanding illusions -- and real life.

"At the end of the past and the present is the future," he says. "It never really comes but it's there all the same, this supposed place we will someday get to. But the future is either our own death or the existence of magic."

Can you trust magicians? Can you trust storytellers? Does it matter? The Confabulist never really closes the case on these questions.

The reader is left to consider the possibility that deep truths can be communicated even through stories that are full of holes.

 

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based writer and editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2014 G5

History

Updated on Saturday, May 3, 2014 at 7:43 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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