It’s hard to know what to make of Thomas Wharton’s Salamander. Even two days after I finished reading it, it’s still in my brain. It’s probably a good thing I was in a hotel that was stingy about Internet, or I would have rushed out a review right away. Perhaps the only definitive thing I can say about Salamander is that it is a that might have the power to turn non-readers into bibliophiles with its blend of fairy tale, high adventure, philosophy, and love.
Salamander is a book of layers. The first layer opens in Montreal, during the French and Indian Wars. An English colonel has come upon a bookstore, with a lone woman picking through the books to find an unnamed book. He asks her what she’s doing in a city under siege and ends up listening to the strange story of her live. She has to go back more than twenty years, because her story begins with her parents. Her father was a printer from London.
Nicholas Flood delights in making unusual books. His hobby secures him a commission from Count Ostrov of Slovakia. Nicholas travels to Hrad Ostrov to print an infinite book—a book that never ends. The Count will foot the bill and give Nicholas room and board while he figures out how to complete this task. As if this wasn’t enough of a challenge, Nicholas has to content with the strange clockwork hrad the count has built around himself. The whole building shifts on a timetable. Beds travel past each other in the night. Walls filled with book-lined shelves appear and vanish over the course of the day. Even more distracting than the clockwork is the count’s daughter.
The layers multiply as the lovers are separated. Their daughter, Pica, becomes the new main character. Pica, Nicholas, and their allies travel the world looking for supplies Nicholas needs to create his infinite book and find his lost love. Pica tells us the story of almost everyone they meet. (The author’s note at the end of Salamander cites Wharton’s inspirations for the various stories in works like Italian Folktales, by Italo Calvino; The Dream of the Red Chamber, by Cao Xueqin; and The Scholars, by Wu Ching-Tzu.) I lost count of how deep Pica took us.
Nothing ever went the way I expected it to. Though it has sections that represent so many different genres, events and characters resisted convention left and right. There’s a section of the book that perfectly describes the experience of reading:
Sometimes you wish to escape to another part of the book.
You stop reading and riffle the pages, catching sight of the story as it races ahead, not above the world but through it, through forests and complications, the chaos of intentions and cities.
As you near the last few pages you are hurtling through the book at increasing speed, until all is a blur of restlessness, and then suddenly your thumb loses its grip and you sail out of the story and back into yourself. The book is once again a fragile vessel of cloth and paper. You have gone everywhere and nowhere. (256*)
So, because or in spite of Wharton’s virtuosity in Salamander, he captures a piece of what it is to deeply love reading, to fall into a story. I think this is what Salamander is about, in its heart. With its layers and multiple genres, Salamander is almost an infinite book it contains so much. This is what readers look for when we open up a new volume: a little piece of the infinite world around us. But with better dialog. And less boredom.
* Page number is approximate. I was reading the kindle editon.