Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 19, 2009

Passarola Rising (2006), by Azhar Abidi

Passarola RisingI’ve got some big fat books to read for the Classics Challenge and a pile of other things to read first, but when I saw Passarola Rising at the library I didn’t hesitate.  The reviews I saw when it first came out in 2006 intrigued me, but for some reason I missed buying it and then it vanished off the bookshop shelves…

It’s wonderfully, fabulously imaginative.  Two brothers from 18th century Lisbon, Bartolomeu and Alexandre Laurenco, build an airship powered by four large vacuum spheres which lift the ship – which is a sort of cross between a Spanish galleon and a rowboat with two huge paddles like wings.  I have grave doubts about the physics of its design, but who cares?  The Passarola (big bird) has a bizarre credibility and we have lift-off into an intriguing tale and the practicalities don’t matter a scrap.  The brothers have a quest to fulfil and the perils of a tiresome church to evade…

The spouse in Campo di Fiori, with Bruno

The spouse in Campo di Fiori, with Bruno

In the Campo di Fiore in Rome, there’s a statue of the astronomer Giordano Bruno rising high above the hubbub of tourists and bustling commerce. It is salutary to linger over a macchiato and consider the enormity of what happened here.  In 1600 Bruno proposed that the sun was one of many celestial bodies in an infinite universe.  The church said that this was heresy.  They burned him, most horribly, at the stake.  This was the fate of those who questioned the authority of the church and challenged its dogma.

Laurenco's Passarola (Source: Wikipedia

Laurenco’s Passarola (Source: Wikipedia

A hundred years later, the real Bartolomeu Laurenco of Portugal designed an airship and received the patronage of King João V, but by the end of the century a fable had arisen: that the Inquisition had persecuted him.  Whether it did or didn’t is something for scholars to play with, but there can’t be any doubt that Laurenco would have feared it, because the battle between faith and reason was unresolved.  (The Portuguese Inquisition was still trying cases as recently as 1831).

The spectre of this persecution propels the fictional Bartoleomeu and his brother into fleeing Portugal for France when Alexandre’s dalliance with the lovely Maria morphs into an embarrassing rumour about King João.  His patronage is withdrawn and they are at risk from the wily Cardinal Conti.

‘They are afraid that I’ll sail my ship through the ether and find what must not be found.’

‘What must not be found?’

‘Perhaps that the heavens are empty and there is no God,’ he said with  shrug, ‘because if there’s no God then there cannot be religion…’ (p18)

In Paris King Louis XV wrestles with science and imagination as opposing forces, with national pride providing a rational reason for supporting the concept of flight:

‘You don’t intend to deport us to  João?’

‘Oh, I’d keep you, in fact,’ he answered.  ‘Had João V had some foresight, he might have fulfilled the prophecy of leading his nation into another golden age.  No, I shall not deport you, for unlike in Portugal, the clock does not turn backward in France.  The French nation can anticpate the great advantage of an airship.  In fact, our greatest concern is that your machine falls into the hands of our inveterate enemies.’ (p81)

These inveterate enemies are of course the British, and later on the brothers’ travels take them to the court of King George who foresees the possibilities for warfare too.  (Sad, isn’t it, the way the thoughts of civilized man so easily subvert invention in this way? It took no time at all for aircraft to be used in war at the turn of the 20th century.)

There are many philosophical highways and byways in this slim novel, but the adventure never falters.  It reminded me a little bit of the splendid Napoleon’s Double in the way that the characters debate issues such as risk, safety and adventure (p130); the right of ‘civilized man’ to corrupt the innocence of hitherto ‘undiscovered’ places in the name of expanding human knowledge (p 155); faith versus truth (p18);  the morality of inventions which may be used for evil purposes (p35); freedom and a borderless world versus the security of boundaries.   There is much here for book groups to enjoy, as the Passarola sets off on one fascinating mission after another: the rescue of an imperilled king; the exploration of polar regions; the search for the northwest passage and yes, even terra incognita and the Great South Land.

There is a reason for Alexandre’s melancholy voice, but it’s  not merely an aspect of the plot not to be revealed here.  It’s also that having tasted the romance of adventure and discovery, he can never really reconcile that passion for the thrill of risk with the need for loving relationships.  A feeling familiar to most of us, at some time or another….

Passarola Rising is a little gem.  Look out for it!

There are some really interesting reviews online: Curled up with a Good Book, and The Age, and Penguin has a reading group guide.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Azhar Abidi
Title: Passarola Rising
Publisher: Penguin, 2006
Source: Kingston Library

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