Free City

Eric Darton, Author W. W. Norton & Company $18 (176p) ISBN 978-0-393-03980-1
Set in the mid-1600s in an unnamed northern European port much like Antwerp, Darton's seductive fable is a stylistic tour de force, a dazzling parable about the birth of the modern age with its terrors and promise. It unfolds as the diary of a Leonardo-like inventor, scientist, surgeon, memory expert and sexual acrobat whose inventions include explosives, anesthetics, a military airship and humanlike automata. This unnamed polymath, scornful of the city's privileged burghers and full of withering irony as a keen observer of human failings, has made a Faustian pact with his patron, Roberto, a ruthless, grandiloquent merchant and slave trader whose traffic in human cargo morally repulses the narrator. Adela, the inventor's mistress, is a healer and herbalist who lapses into delirium and communes with an entity she calls Master. The plot centers on Roberto's attempt to seize absolute political power and the inventor's devious schemes to foil his patron's tyrannical ambitions. Darton, who teaches media, technology and cultural studies at Hunter College in New York, creates weird symbols of technology run amok, such as Friedrich, Roberto's garrulous talking duck--no mere clockwork mechanism but a multilingual bird that resents its manipulative master. Published in a compact 41/2""x 63/4"" format, this short debut novel is reminiscent of Italo Calvino's work in its dashing mingling of history and fantasy. Author tour. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 09/02/1996
Release date: 09/01/1996
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