It is absolutely true that if you start George Paxinos’ novel Κατ’ εικόνα you can’t put it down. It is a gripping narrative starting with an accidental discovery and evolving into a global scale of research and pursuit in order to find answers to certain persistent questions of the human mind about faith, religion, the origin of life, the meaning of living, probably the very purpose of death and dying – and in between about human relations, love, desire, empathy and compassion.
The story is complex and evolves in different levels as it unfolds from Palestine to various places, from Argentina to Australia, focusing on different characters from different countries, traditions and mentalities. Their differences are set against the background of their presumed sameness.
The main protagonists Evelyn and her partner try to come to terms with the complexities of their profession and the dynamics of their relationship. She is a geneticist and an amateur archaeologist who in her attempt to find the truth about a random discovery from the past recreates it in the only possible way that she knows: scientifically. The certainties of scientific methods appear dominant in the book, yet at the same time are submitted to the test of human emotions. What starts as an exercise in scientific discovery is gradually transformed into a journey of personal self-discovery and self-revelation. In the end the great revelation is not about the mystery of a personal identity, but about the character of the human person, the distinct and unique formation of matter that constitutes the unrepeatable event of every individual’s birth.
E.M. Foster made a very useful distinction between story and plot in the novel. The story of the novel takes place in different continents and focuses around characters whose affinities are both real and imaginative. At the same time, and there we can see the novelist at his best, the plot links characters, episodes and places through universal ideas and humanistic emotions which function as narrative conjunctions.
Paxinos’ novel shows something of the scope that we find in the novels of Umberto Eco, through to the more recent fictional preoccupations of Kazuo Isighuro’s Never Let Me Go (2005). My persistent references when I was reading the book were to the novels of one of the greatest scientists of the last century, Carl Sagan, especially his unduly neglected novel Contact. In Paxinos’ book, the scientist and the imaginative writer are fused together through the solidity of storytelling and the great attention to detail.
If you want to understand the art and the style of a novelist you must pay attention to the little details that make all the difference in the narrative. Paxinos intersperses his story with small details that make his narrative multidimensional and multifocal. His storytelling ability over the 470 pages of the book is truly astounding: the twists and turns of the novel are focused on vivid images, haunting depictions and more importantly, tense conversations. The whole novel glorifies the verbal landscapes of the human mind in many languages, and through them he explores the great political adventures against totalitarianism and oppression. ‘Hasta la Victoria siempre’, he points out somewhere, referring to the famous lines by Che Guevara.
Yet beyond the rich tapestry of the cosmopolitan world described in its pages, the story is a masterful unfolding of ideas and beliefs, in conflict or in harmony, in an attempt to achieve the synthesisation of opposites and the reconciliation of antinomies that characterise the modern world of colliding truths. The novel is a self-reflexive work of ideas and intellectual questioning; without ever becoming dull or laboured it is full of striking expressions but most importantly of intense engagement with the great questions of our day, from religious belief to bioethics, from sexuality to love, from medicine to individuality and personal character.
On many occasions the novel uses strong poetic language full of emotions and strong sentiments. And as it reaches its climax with the symbolic 24th chapter the questions become devastating: “What can be worse that a life without meaning?” states the internal monologue of Christopher. “All became clear in him. His only choice which would give him meaning would be to be united with her, carry on together the fight for the forest, for justice for the people and the planet. Before taking the next step, he had to complete what he travelled for, to bring back the past to its serenity. History had to rest.”
The final pages of the novel end with an optimistic hope through the forthcoming birth of a child. The new hope brings closure and at the same time completion. The novel ends as it began; but now the unpredictability of human individuality becomes the most decisive factor beyond genetic determinism or mere chance. Life is about choices, which sometimes change history or totally fail to do so. But if we want change to happen, and let any metaphysical, political or economic master to dominate us, we must make up our mind, we must decide rationally and dispassionately.
George Paxinos’ book is a novel of empowerment and assent, a book about the dilemmas and the questions of contemporary humanity with a positive message and an optimistic way of looking at the human phenomenon. In an era of nihilism and pessimism, it is welcome and a powerful antidote which I hope that many people will taste.
Κατ’ εικόνα is published by Livanis Publications, Athens, 2015.
Vrasidas Karalis is the Sir Nicholas Laurantus Professor of Modern Greek at the University of Sydney.