Enigma Variations

Sally and Richard Price, professors of both American Studies and anthropology at the College of William and Mary, are back, covering some of the same ground as their earlier books, but this time in a novel way. Indeed, ENIGMA VARIATIONS is a novel, a slim, slick piece of postmodern play, unlike yet strangely related to the rest of the authors’ more conventionally scholarly or (in the case of EQUITORIA) autobiographical writings. Playing its variations on (among others) Edward Elgar’s famous orchestral work of the same name, this novel (if it is a novel) stars the Prices (if they are the Prices) in their joint role as professional academics and amateur sleuths on a mission to French Guiana (when not following their grant money to Princeton and Paris) to appraise a collection of artifacts that the enigmatic Jacques-Emile Lafontaine has offered to sell to the newly founded Musee d’Equitoria (financed by the same French government that is turning the capital, Cayenne, into the center for its space program).

Using the actual Prices’ earlier AFRO-AMERICAN ARTS OF THE SURINAME RAIN FOREST as his bible, this former lycee teacher and jungle animal exporter now specializes in artifacts that he claims are authentic but which are “in fact” (as the Prices discover) works Lafontaine has himself designed by combining traditional forms in novel ways. Adding a few embellishments of his own, he has the work carved by a native artist, which he then “ages” before selling as authentic folk art. Making money is, however, only one of Lafontaine’s goals; conning experts such as the Prices is another. Thus the real center of the Prices’ anthropological mystery-thriller: their explorations of the entire “continuum from ’legitimate imitation’ to ’exploitive forgery,” of the complex “relationship between originals and copies” and of the “gray zone that combines artistry, bricolage, restoring, and repairing.” The novel forms a gray zone of its own, at once Borgesian, Pynchonesque, postcolonial, and hybrid (made up of equal if indistinguishable parts fact and fiction, two-thirds of every page devoted to text and the rest to illustrations, the whole buttressed with copious notes and acknowledgments). Despite its thin plot, even thinner characterizations, and merely serviceable prose, ENIGMA VARIATIONS succeeds amazingly well, for it is wonderfully rich in intellectual adventures and aesthetic as well as ethical and cultural conundrums.