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Isn’t the Truth Always a Mosaic?

Review of “Goldberg’s Angel: An Adventure in the Antiquities Trade,” by Dan Hofstadter

Goldberg's Angel, by Dan Hofstadter

There is little point embarking on a synopsis of Goldberg’s Angel, because the book itself, at 241 pages, seems to be a synopsis of a story that would properly require more volumes than the Britannica. The simple frame from which the baroque plot dangles is that a smart blond lady, one Peg Goldberg of Indianapolis, bought some mosaics which proved to have been stolen from a church in northern Cyprus; Cyprus sued to repatriate the mosaics; Peg gave her best defense; she lost.

Irked, she tried to discover how the mosaics had left Cyprus in the first place, under what circumstances they had been sold to her, and whether she could re-establish rights to them. Her search led her across continents and societies; she spoke to thieves and noblemen; she climbed mountains and she haunted difficult cities. She found out very little.

Dan Hofstadter, a journalist and self-styled private eye with a trace of the mad gentleman-scholar about him, became involved in the search and traveled to even more places, consorted with even more gypsies, con men and handsome strangers, excavated where no one had ever excavated before. He also found out very little.

Goldberg’s Angel fascinates with its curious pointlessness. If one bears in mind that Odysseus returns home at the end of his journeys, and that the Ring Cycle begins and ends with those Rhine maidens singing their rather nasal leitmotif, then one can perhaps assign Goldberg’s Angel a place in a fine tradition of epics that lead back only to themselves–for your acceptance of this book as an epic is a crucial starting proposition.

Within this grand structure, Hofstadter paces things like a John Grisham novel, giving strange presages of what is to come, dropping names meaningfully into what would otherwise appear to be a meaningless digression, holding the answer always at arm’s length. He makes you trust a character for 20 pages only to pull the rug out form under you at the last minute: the obvious villains mostly come out looking innocent, and none of the innocents can quiet be trusted. He leads you on to fall in love with someone and then slams you with that person’s evil.

Along the way he seems to taunt you almost sadistically with the question of his own trustworthiness, inviting you to accept unquestioningly his version of events, but at the same time poking holes in each of his own arguments. In a most un-naïve fashion, he constantly tells you how naïve he is, and in a distinctly unsophisticated way he boasts of his sophistication. In fact, he puts you through the same hoops through which he was obliged to leap: he does not simply recount his confusion and frustration, but rather allows you to experience it yourself.

This annoying, brilliant, comical, gripping, obsessive exercise in self-indulgence is also fantastically sensual. Hofstadter conjures the smell of each of the people with whom he tangled: the elusive Aydin Dikmen, the unseen evil genius at the heart of the book; feisty Peg Goldberg, who perhaps had some information right from the beginning; the three bodyguards of whom everyone is so frightened, Marko, Draza, and Hans; the fiercely proud Savo Kujundzic, who may or may not know where the feet have gone; the conniving Michel van Rijn, who believes that kindness is a weakness; that inexplicable duo, Mehmet and Ahmet, who should be able to unlock all the secrets.

We get a full sense of each of these characters, of how they live, of how they speak, of what they have for breakfast. Like Hofstadter, though, we are never sure which, if any of them, is telling the truth; we seldom have a clue as to why they are saying or doing anything at all, and we are particularly mystified by their decision to talk to our narrator Dan.

There is a strong temptation, about a third of the way through, to flip to the end of the book and see what kind of resolution or explanation we could possibly be headed for, and we are kept from doing this only by the awareness that whatever the conclusion is, it probably won’t make much sense to anyone who hasn’t dragged through the history that precedes it.

Hofstadter has a capacity for exquisite, lyrical prose; he revels in his own language, and makes good use of richly various circumstances to toss around pungent adjectives, far-fetched metaphors, virtuoso constructions. Such dense description, which under other circumstances might seem self-conscious, here provides a welcome occasion to breathe and assimilate the unending catalogue of subtle narrative complexities that are key to the tale. Hofstadter does sometimes wallow in his own prose, conjuring an air of mystery around events that are not in fact mysterious, and this can be rather irritating, since there is no shortage here of events that are actually mysterious; but his own thrall to his subject (he describes himself as a “Kanakaria junkie” in connection with the mosaics) says the reader from the start. It all interests him so much that it perforce interests you.

Hofstadter has struggled valiantly to organize his material, but it is too slippery to give in easily to the author’s rage for order. The combination of the high language and the increasingly hilarious and dangerous position of the bemused author (both in his experience and in his attempts to interpret it) make the whole thing feel in places like an old ’50 movies: you can almost hear the Hitchcock music playing as Dan heads toward Munich; you get a real surge of adrenaline when the two Ahmets prove to be one and the same; the whole overwritten affair of the man with the amethyst ring has a brassy absurdity satisfyingly evocative of Hollywood melodrama. Many of the “answers” the author earnestly puts forward are clearly ridiculous, but then the theories you begin to hatch in your head are also ridiculous, and even if you have long held out against conspiracy theories on principle, you cannot break away from the idea that someone or something has to be behind all the weirdness recounted here. Who or what, though–your guess is as good as Dan’s.

Like any good study in conspiracy theory, this one makes you feel that the world is an impossibly complicated place, and that decent Americans innocent of its bizarre secrets have a certain idiocy about them. Hofstadter cheerily implicates both himself and the reader in this ingenuousness. He can no more explain his characters than Wagner could the in-politics of Valhalla.

The book opens with a prologue, a kind of prose poem paean to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, which in its specific details has no bearing on the rest of the text. It uses a vocabulary now deemed most unfashionable: an Orientalist language invented long ago to evoke the mysterious East, where motivations are different and life is different and everyone does different things for different reasons. Hofstadter intends this as a metaphor for his subject matter, but it is really a metaphor for his book, which is not at all Turkish in any very authentic sense but is as brilliantly Oriental as anything by De Quincey. You lose yourself in it as you do among the merchant stalls in Istanbul; you resent being lost; and then you realize that the best, the only way to experience it is to lose yourself in and to it. If you read this as a text with an object–if you expect to get to the bottom of things–then you will be sorely disappointed, but if you read it for the voluptuous Oriental experience of its characters, its prose and its riveting complexity, then you will find that it is, in its way, a tour de force of the first order. Even the incredibly contrived sequence (a dream dialogue) that Hofstader foolishly tacked on the end to justify his work to conservative readers does not quite destroy his masterful articulation of his own mixed pleasure and frustration as he pursued a pure truth that he had ultimately to understand that he could never find, a pure truth that probably never existed.