The Bestiary was published by Dial Press in early July 2007, and later that month I spoke via telephone with prolific author Nicholas Christopher, who was at home in the New York evening while I basked in the heat of a Honolulu afternoon.
Published 8/22 in the Honolulu Advertiser, the article focuses not only on his lyrical novel about one man’s search for a lost book and for his place in the world, but also Christopher’s aim in writing it as well as how Hawai`i, where he frequently travels, continues to feed his imagination.
Since links to my articles on the Advertiser site quickly become phantom, I’ve included the article here, in full, below. Afterwards, check out the Advertiser site to see it in print, and a straight review in the LA Timesand in the New York Times Book Review. And though each likens Christopher’s novel to The Da Vinci Code, Christopher explained that he began this book in 2001, far before Dan Brown’s novel was published. Just thought I’d set the record straight.
Reality & fantasy intertwined
The Bestiary | Nicholas Christopher
By Christine Thomas
Special to the Advertiser
August 22, 2007
With a name like Xeno Atlas, the quiet hero of Nicholas Christopher’s fifth novel might seem inevitably bound for worldly adventure. But his travels to Italy, Viet Nam, Hawai`i, or any other place “The Bestiary” alights on, are simply points on a map of broader emotional, cerebral and spiritual discoveries.
After his mother’s death during childbirth, shy Xeno is raised in a dark Bronx apartment by his Sicilian grandmother and long absent father, a reticent shipman from Crete whom Xeno calls “The first beast I laid eyes on.” Xeno finds refuge in his grandmother’s fairytales, a childhood fascination that in high school becomes a lonely but fulfilling obsession with researching real and imagined animals. Soon, he is consumed with finding the elusive and rumored destroyed Caravan Bestiary, an apocryphal book detailing the extraordinary creatures refused passage on Noah’s Ark.
Whimsical yet factually grounded, this story of the mythical foundation of societies and one man’s search for himself through the animals of lore effortlessly spans centuries of global history as well as Xeno’s childhood, service in Viet Nam, and later years as an expatriate.
“The Bestiary” cleverly weaves imagination with reality, as if to assert the two are always twain, and yet in the end, Xeno uncovers something magical that is unknown in the world and something magical that has been in front of him the whole time—but is perhaps more real than anything else.
“I don’t think there’s much difference between what’s real and what’s fantastic in terms of the overall arc of our lives,” says Christopher. “Sometimes the fantastical can be the most real. As I write in the book: In a world of infinite metamorphoses, only a fraction of which we’re aware of, who could separate the fantastical from the commonplace?”
AN AUTHOR’S QUEST
Christopher’s life is likewise anything but commonplace. While in his early 20s, his poetry and writing were already appearing regularly in the New Yorker, and today continues to be included in numerous anthologies and magazines, from Esquire to the New Republic. He’s published five novels, one, “A Trip to the Stars,” is partially set in Hawai`i; eight volumes of poetry; and one nonfiction, on film noir.
Like his wandering hero, Christopher, who was born and raised in New York City, was educated at Harvard and lived abroad, was for a time raised by his grandmother after almost losing his own mother in childbirth. She arguably planted the novel’s first seeds by telling him elaborate fairytales, which, like Xeno, fed his own dreams and imagination.
“As an artist, I was also looking for something like the Caravan Bestiary,” he says. “In a practical way I can see a lot of my childhood in him and the way he grew up in his head, but as he gets older we diverge. What I do is a lot more grounded.”
HUMANS AND BEASTS
The book’s meticulous foundation—in well-imagined characters as well as historical and scientific fact— elevates it above most adventure tales. Christopher wraps in absorbing notes about extinction, revealed through Xeno’s ailing friend Bruno; animal rights, seen in the work of Lena, the friend Xeno secretly loves; or disappearing boundaries between humans and nature witnessed with his family.
“I wanted to make this a story of this man’s life, or else I would have just made him a professor searching for a book,” says Christopher.
In a novel filled with beastly people as well as animals, it is human action—particularly Xeno’s father’s physical absence and lack of anything but financial support, and the Viet Nam war—that defines the arc and meaning of Xeno’s journey.
He and the novel walk two worlds, just as Christopher’s lyrical writing style mirrors his work as both poet and novelist. On one side, Christopher says, are the hard facts of life and history and on the other the world of fantasy and dreams.
“We all do that. We all travel through life in a very pragmatic way, but when you look out the other way there’s a dream world that often doesn’t make sense.”
This is one reason why, after Xeno is wounded in Viet Nam, the novel stops in Honolulu, where Xeno recovers at Tripler Hospital and later does research at the University of Hawai`i, and then on Moloka`i, where he recovers his passion for the Caravan Bestiary.
As part of his extensive research Christopher walked where his hero walks, in Hawai`i, as well as the novel’s other settings.
“I wanted to have a real sense of the place. I went to the university in Manoa and went to the library and spent some time there,” he says. “I mostly spent time in the Foster Botanical Gardens to get a feel for the place and the past. It was that kind of research of place that I wanted to have.”
The novel captures an authentic and never romanticized Hawai`i, an accuracy born of Christopher’s recurring visits over the past 15 years. He began writing “The Bestiary” while on Kaua`i. When he visits, he says, he brings his copy of Martha Beckwith’s Hawaiian Mythology to read.
“If I’d never gone to Hawai`i, it would have just been a literary device,” says Christopher, “but for me it was personal.”
MORE ISLAND TIES
After five years of writing, “The Bestiary” was published in early July, but Christopher’s artistic quest hasn’t concluded. Alongside teaching writing at Columbia University, he’s working on a new novel, partially set in 1950s Honolulu, a poetry collection and a nonfiction book about the mythography of islands.
But whereas many of his books explore the search for lost things, Christopher seems to be finding something—or some place—in his writing.
“Hawai`i is appearing in my books more and more, and eventually it will be a whole book,” he says. “It seems to be a place—unlike New York, which couldn’t be more different—that works on my imagination.”
Photos: The book, the author, the author in Venice, the author and wife on Kaua`i