In the Palace of the Movie King
Hortense Calisher is the author of more than twenty books, a well-respected teacher and recipient of two Guggenheims, a past president of PEN, and a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Despite her achievements, she has not really received the critical attention that her work deserves and is not as well-known as one might expect. In addition, Calisher has consistently written books about the life of ideas and uses a complex and ambiguous style; these characteristics, while no doubt having a negative effect on the numbers of her readers, make her novels, in particular, treasures worth excavating. In the Palace of the Movie King is no exception.
Calisher novels generally explore the yearning for a sense of place in the complex multiverse of the twentieth century. In the Palace of the Movie King adds a postmod-ern twist to this theme by focusing on a hero whose identity is consistently marginal and whose experiences are always shaped by his understandings of the realities of borders—geographical, emotional, and interpersonal. Central to this work—and to a number of others in Calisher’s oeuvre, in particular the novels Textures of Life (1963) and Queenie (1971) and the biographical Herself (1972)—is the process of the journey made by a protagonist. Calisher’s main characters find themselves moving from an existence in which order is created and enforced by imaginative philosophies or emotional aloofness to life in a world of perpetual upheaval where bewildering and challenging realities must be engaged.
In the Palace of the Movie King is a novel of quintessential social drama, clearly inspired by the work of Slavic writers such as Milan Kundera, Václav Havel, Danilo Kiš, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Witold Gombrowicz. The term “Kafkaesque,” referring to a particular perspective on the modern condition, is also certainly applicable to this novel. Like many of the works of the Czech writer Franz Kafka, this narrative is peopled by characters who find themselves at the mercies of bureaucracies and systems that emphasize the frailty and tenuousness of their expectations and experiences.
In the Palace of the Movie King also calls to mind Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt (first presented in 1867), which inspired Edvard Grieg’s incidental music of the same name (the two were first played together in 1876). Both the play and the musical work are represented in the novel. Like Ibsen’s play, Calisher’s book is episodic, following a picaresque, egocentric hero on a physical and emotional odyssey that involves a variety of adventures all over the world. While the hero wanders, his love waits and suffers. The play, the music, and the novel end with the hero reunited with his true love, basking in her tender affection.
Paul Gonchev is born in Vladivostok, grows up in Japan, and makes films about European cities he has never visited at a mountain studio he names Elsinore, built for him in Albania. Within this environment, he is king of all he surveys, manipulating all of his interactions with others and directing the careers of his students as well as his own films. In the face of changing political and social realities, his wife arranges to have him “hijacked” by Americans. He is so traumatized by this experience that he is unable to speak any of the seven languages he knows except the Japanese of his boyhood. John Perkins Pfize, his “Department” contact and the engineer of his “escape,” arranges for the services of an interpreter, the lovely Roko, who becomes Paul’s mistress. Paul becomes a professional dissident, spending time in California with the cynical Malkoff and his wife, Daria, and experiencing his first earthquake. At last, he ends up in New York, where his daughter Laura has found sanctuary and a boyfriend.
His wife, Vukisca, is imprisoned in Albania after a botched escape attempt during which she is forced to shoot her son, Klement, who does not want her to defect. Vukisca is rescued by her twin brother Danilo, who switches places with her. Disguised as Danilo, she is spirited out of the country and finally reunited with Paul in New York City during the marriage ceremony of Roko and her Korean groom. Paul’s return to his beloved and his attachment to her over any political or artistic allegiance reveal the limitations of adventuring and the meaninglessness of the boundaries and borders he has both constructed and crossed.
Music is an important element of the novel....
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