Monday, February 21, 2011

Waiting for Columbus

Waiting for Columbus / Thomas Trofimuk
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, c2009.
408 p.

I've owned this book for quite a while and have been intending to read it for ages. I finally opened it as part of my Canadian Book Challenge reading, which has really been helpful in encouraging me to read outside of my habitual choices. This book is set in Spain and features a mental patient who believes he is Christopher Columbus. Many readers have loved it, while there are others who most definitely did not. I wasn't sure which camp I'd end up in when I began; the start of the novel felt forced to me, it didn't draw me in quickly and I wasn't convinced I wanted to keep reading. But I did.

And I am glad I kept on past my inauspicious beginning, because although I can't honestly say I loved it to the point some others have done, I did enjoy it and appreciated many of its brilliant flights of fancy. Columbus, as he is known, is an anonymous mental patient; he simply arrived one day, no-one knows who he really is or where he came from. He is so convincing in his belief that even the nurses half think of him as Columbus. It is the interweaving of the thoughts and experiences of his "Columbus" life and the modern day elements that appear in his story -- such as he and King Ferdinand playing pool, or watching tv, or the royal courtiers all with cell phones -- that I found most intriguing. Trofimuk never slips in this approach; it is clever and seamless. Columbus is a wonderful character full of intrigue, passion and a deep sorrow.

If you read it carefully it is fairly easy to piece together his real story as you go along. What really happened to him is made clear near the end, but there are hints throughout and what caused his mental breakdown is believable and tragic, almost too much so to read comfortably. He is a Canadian, from Montreal, and reading those parts of his story were as interesting for me as the days in which he was in his Columbus state. He is a rich character, full of possibility and invention. Making the story deeper and more nuanced were the side characters of Consuela, his nurse, who has her own issues, romantic and professional, as well as Emil, the troubled French detective hired to find a man who had disappeared utterly. They all meet up in the final stages and restore Columbus to his previous life, as much as he can ever be restored to it.

The book brings up interesting questions of how we deal with tragedy, and how those mental tricks and strategies are perceived by others. How useful are they, and how long do they remain useful? It was a wide-ranging book, unusual in scope for a Canadian novel, I felt. Set primarily outside of the country, and with a non-Canadian fixation (Columbus) it still made perfect sense that the main character turned out to be Canadian, from the New World, and it tied the narrative together in many deeper ways.

In fact, this is a book that can be experienced at many levels. It has a straightforward mystery: who is Columbus and how did he come to this state? It also explores love, identity, belief, imagination, survival, and interweaves eras in which anxiety and politics are in full force. I enjoyed reading it and would have liked to spend more time in the company of these characters. I am glad I finally picked it up and persevered to its conclusion.

Thomas Trofimuk is an Edmonton-born writer who writes poetry, short-fiction, and novels. His first novel, The 52nd Poem, was published by Great Plains Publications in the spring of 2002. The book went on to win a few awards including the 2003 Alberta Novel of the Year and the City of Edmonton Book Prize. A second novel, Doubting Yourself to the Bone, was published in the fall of 2006 by Cormorant Books. Trofimuk is a founding father of Edmonton’s Raving Poets movement and he’s an irregular reviewer for the Edmonton Journal book page. His poems and short stories have been published in literary magazines and journals across Canada, and broadcast on CBC radio. He lives in Edmonton with his wife and daughter.


  1. Everything I hear about this book is good. I've got it on my list of must-reads!

  2. I've heard so many good things about this book! I am glad you enjoyed it, even if you didn't love it. I also haven't ever seen that version of the cover before, but I like it.

  3. I am curious about this book, but I can't decide if it is for me... Good review, though! If my library had it, I might read it but, but I am not sure if it is something I want to buy. I just can't decide!

  4. Oh good, I'm glad you stuck with it and liked it. It is heartbreaking...I think that's what made the book so powerful. You have the almost ridiculousness of the Columbus story, and then the tragedy that makes it all so plausible.

  5. I got a review copy of this when it came out and I adored it. I couldn't put it down! I'm glad you liked it in the end.

  6. Jeane - I'm glad I read it, finally... realizing it from the purgatory of my TBR shelf!

    Aarti - this is the first Can. edition cover, I believe...I've seen quite a few different covers and most of them are really attractive

    Kailana - I always think the library is a good choice for books you're not sure you want to buy -- can always use interlibrary loan if your local library doesn't have it

    Softdrink - I agree, it's the combination of the unreality of the Columbus delusion and the eventual revelation of the truth that is so striking

    Wandering Coyote - I did! Once I got about a third of the way in I didn't want to stop.

  7. I have to say that despite the beginning that seems to be slow and was difficult for you to get into, the story of Columbus himself sounds very intriguing and I always have interest in stories of people suffering from some kind of mental illness. It might be a book worth looking into.

  8. lilly - for those elements alone -- Columbus himself, and his experience of this kind of mental dissociation, I think this book would be a worthy read. It is also quite an enjoyable read, at the same time :)


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