A Review of Vladimir Pištalo’s
Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on May 17th, 2015
Tesla: A Portrait with Masks
By Vladimir Pištalo
452 pp. $18
Among the late-nineteenth-century luminaries who accelerated the world into irreversible modernity, few were as literally electrifying as the Serbian-American inventor and engineer Nikola Tesla. A futurist, showman, and quintessential mad scientist, Tesla was the main impetus behind alternating current, which allowed energy to be transferred easily over long distances, and his public persona dramatically engaged a world that was eager to be dazzled by shimmering spectacle, forcefully rushing the age of the horse and buggy toward both enlightenment and calamity. With his newly translated novel Tesla: A Portrait with Masks, Serbian writer Vladimir Pištalo takes on the man and the myth to create a novel of scintillating luster and wide-ranging resonance.
Rounding up all the usual fin de siècle suspects—Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, and dozens of others—Pištalo charts Tesla’s rainbow arc from obscurity to international fame and almost completely back again, infusing the historical happenings with rich poetry and unique vision. Structurally, this is a fairly conventional historical novel, written almost entirely in short declarative sentences, but Pištalo casts it through a dreamy and often surreal inner reflectiveness that weaves it all into a dazzling yarn. Like Tesla, who didn’t believe in Einstein’s relativity, Pištalo never truly bends time/space in his narrative, and so despite the modernist subject matter, the novel’s greatest pleasures are actually in his time-tested approaches to character and development, at which he excels. The repulsive Edison, the warmly doddering Twain, the terrifying J.P. Morgan, and the brilliant, bizarre, and baffling Tesla all come alive and spark off of each other to luminous effect, taking the reader on a grand tour of the electric age’s highlights.
Pištalo doesn’t just dwell among the stars, however. His most vivid and moving portrayals are of the under-side of life, of the people left behind in Europe, and especially of the workers toiling in the sewers beneath the towers of the American wealthy. After being swindled by Edison and then squeezed out of his own company by unscrupulous backers, Tesla finds himself digging ditches in New York, and his vivid, loving, brutal, and unsentimentally drawn fellow laborers approach a Twain-like richness of humanity and tragedy. Mirroring all of this, Tesla’s own under-side shadows him constantly, repeatedly pulling him down from the heights that he can’t help from destructively overshooting. Likewise, he can’t restrain the modern world that he’s helped to call into existence and that to his horror is rushing toward unprecedented global conflict.
While Pištalo’s grasp of the time period’s movements and undercurrents are deeply nuanced, his portrayals of Tesla’s actual scientific advances aren’t always entirely convincing. In lieu of technical detail, he loads the narrative with metaphor, focusing on the philosophical and literary resonances of each new development. At turns Tesla is a cypher for Prometheus, the biblical Jacob, Don Quixote, Milton’s Satan, Byron’s Manfred, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which can all be a bit much as Pištalo begins simply referring to Tesla by these names. Nevertheless, as a meditation on humanity’s dually creative and self-destructive nature, this highly polished novel serves as a classic literary mirror of who we are and where we’re heading.