Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Asylum of Dr. Calgari

Title:  The Asylum of Dr. Calgari
Author:  James Morrow
Publication Information:  Tachyon Publications. 2017. 192 pages.
ISBN:  1616962658 / 978-1616962654

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "From its birth during the Age of Reason until its disappearance following the Treaty of Versailles, the tiny principality of Weizenstaat lay along the swampy seam between the German Empire and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg like an embolism lodged in an artery."

Favorite Quote:  "You will teach me what you know of art, and I shall teach what I know of badness ... Madness? ... That, too."

The book's protagonist, Francis Wyndham, is an American from Philadelphia. He is also an aspiring painter, who comes to Europe in the hopes of apprenticing himself to one of the great painters, perhaps Pablo Picasso. Things do not work out as he hopes. He finds himself in dire straits. A chance meeting leads to a job as an art instructor at insane asylum run by Alessandro Caligari.

Dr. Caligari's asylum is in Europe. The year is 1914. That, of course, means war. The War. World War I. The events are in motion. Lines have been drawn. Sides have been chosen. And, then, there are the profiteers. Sometimes, ideology is a factor, but, more often than not, the profiteers are the ones who play both sides for profit and personal game. Everything is for sale to the highest bidder regardless of the impact on the world.

What, you might ask, does an insane asylum and an American painter have to do with the war? That is the crux of the book. For, Dr. Caligari is a profiteer. He has come up with a weapon that will make him rich and direct the course of the war. Francis Wyndham finds himself in the unlikely position of being the one who stands in Dr. Caligari's  way. He has help from an asylum inmate, and together they set out to foil the doctor's plan. Oddly, embedded in the middle of this mayhem is a love story and a tribute to the impact of art on its viewer. Perhaps, beauty, or in this case horror, is in the eye of the beholder.

This story is short - more novella than novel. It is also so odd that I began do research the story and the author. What I found makes the whole thing even more interesting. This novella is based on on a 1920s silent horror film from Germany titled Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Calgary). The movie is about a hypnotist who uses a sleep-walking man to commit murder. The movie itself is based on the creators' experiences in World War I. The hypnotist symbolized the German government, and the sleep-walking man, the soldiers trained to kill. The book brings the message more literally with its setting in the War and its weapon of mass destruction.

Bizarre is the word that comes to mind for this book. Not that that is unexpected given the title and the cover. The book "blurb" states, "The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is a timely tale that is by turns funny and erotic, tender and bayonet-sharp―but ultimately emerges as a love letter to that mysterious, indispensible thing called art." I am not sure I get all that from the book, but it intrigues me enough to keep reading to see where it goes. It ends up in an unexpected place, and that too is okay. This book is definitely one in which as a reader, I just go with the flow with no expectation, no major a-ha moments, no disappointments, but a memorable reading experience regardless.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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