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Review: 'Voltaire's Calligrapher' by Pablo De Santis reveals the power of the written word

Voltaire's Calligrapher by Argentinean writer Pablo De Santis is a novel not to overlook. This intellectually playful picaresque is set at a time when the printing press has "stripped words of their transcendental meaning," and "no faith (is) more dangerous than the faith of the converted."

Packed with secret missives, mad scribes, sinister automatons and "cursed words," De Santis' novel is a clever satire about the lost art of calligraphy and the sacred belief that "faith in the power of words" is necessary to drag the world from the dark ages. Voltaire, the humanist hero of the Enlightenment, is a shadowy figure in the story, but his heart looms over the narrative. Literally. Dalessius, the calligrapher of the title, narrates the story from a city in the Americas with Voltaire's heart "in a glass jar" on his desk.

The relic is a reminder of the calligrapher's mission to investigate a conspiracy surrounding the execution of Jean Calas. Calas was a French Huguenot accused of murdering his son days before the son's conversion to Catholicism (a crime the real Voltaire used to publicize the need for religious tolerance). Like Voltaire's character Candide, Dalessius on his investigative journey encounters experiences and people who test his fortitude and his faith, including a mad abbot "who's writing a book that never ends, using his enemies' blood as ink."

At one point, when Dalessius believes his mission has come "to the worst possible end," he explains how "bookstores in Paris" gather loose pages from lost books to "create a book that jumped from one topic to another." He admits his investigation feels like that, "gathering incomprehensible pages, hoping the great reader . . . at Ferney (Voltaire) would make sense of them."

It's hard not to make this novel sound cryptic, because it is, but in a wonderful way. It is packed with illusions (words are real, women not always), allusions (if you're up on Enlightenment philosophy) and puns, all of which make sense when you're firmly in the grip of the story's thrilling denouement.

Voltaire's Calligrapher

By Pablo De Santis

Harper

Perennial, 149 pages, $14.99

Review: 'Voltaire's Calligrapher' by Pablo De Santis reveals the power of the written word 01/01/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:51pm]

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