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192 pages, paper, $14. By Tim W. Brown Imagine a dozen of the most insufferable people you know— tremendous bores, pompous asses, unbearable snobs, big buffoons. Roll them into one package. Then stand back to witness the fun. This is what Daniel Pearlman has done with Hector Dinara Favallone, the tightly wrapped main character of Black Flames. I hesitate to call him the novel’s “hero,” for Hector very definitely lacks heroism. A brilliant linguist (he speaks twenty-seven languages) who teaches at a small New England college, Hector is approaching retirement. Rather than sliding into his emeritus years gracefully, he finds himself awash in controversy: The college wants to promote him to full professor (incredibly, Hector remains an associate professor in his sixties). To earn this largely honorific promotion, all he must do is submit a book. Problem is, his magnum opus, a collection of notes proving that the Basque and Georgian languages are related, is in tatters, some portions lost many years before, others stolen more recently by deceitful colleagues. Hector uses his fantastic memory to recreate the missing notes while he attempts to solve the mystery of their theft. Meantime, Hector’s home life is in turmoil. He suspects that his much younger wife Isabella is carrying on a love affair. Hoping to catch her in flagrente delicto with her paramour, he stalks her during her nighttime outings. Insensitive to his children’s obvious pain over their parents’ marital problems, he orders them to buckle up and be strong like he was in his youthful soldier days. After a period of investigation and hypothesizing, Hector thinks he has uncovered the master plot, one so grand it reaches as far as Moscow, which is targeting him because of his staunch anti-communism. Seduced by a Soviet spy, Isabella
was a mere pawn in an insidious game of politics, merely being used to get at the true object of the game: to destroy the scholarly credibility of Professor Hector Dinara Favallone. She did not know how relentless the communists could be, how spendthrift they were in pursuing even the most trivial objective that could lead to the strengthening of their international position. (p. 81) However, as they say, things are not always what they seem. Indeed, Hector’s increasing self-delusion is what drives this novel. Above all, he fancies himself a brave soldier and war hero, despite the dubious distinction of serving in the Italian army fighting on the fascist side during the Spanish Civil War. As the story unfolds, facts begin to undermine personal myth: Hector’s characteristic response to crisis is failure of nerve—to finish his book, to confront his cheating wife, to reassure his children, or to succeed on the battlefield in 1937. The author skillfully exploits the tension between fantasy and reality, leaving the reader to ponder the truth about Hector until the concluding scene, when all of his illusions are in full retreat. Pearlman, a renowned expert on Ezra Pound, offers an interesting portrait of a mad visionary who at times resembles his favorite scholarly subject. For all of his bluster and bullying, Hector poses important questions about the nature of modern life. Personal traits that lead to ridicule and ultimately undo him are rooted in classic ideals seemingly forgotten in today’s world: honor, decency, civility, taste, and discipline.