The Last Supper, Pawel Huelle (trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones). Serpent’s Tale. 256pp, $14.95.
The premise of Pawel Huelle’s novel is simple: An artist invites twelve of his friends to his studio in order to take a photo recreating Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” No one is told which disciple he is going to be; in fact, the men themselves are told to keep moving from position to position so that they aren’t the same person twice. Before completely adjusting to the idea, one character states:
“In a Bach fugue we follow the main theme in rapture. It keeps vanishing, like the thread in a cross-stitch pattern. And whenever it disappears, it’s still there in our heads, and we wait in suspense for it to reappear. Whenever it comes back—because that’s the principle of a fugue—we’re thrilled by the masterful way it has been transformed. And most of all by its reappearance.”
And this is essentially what Huelle attempts, as well; he presents the lives of these men who are about to come together for the first time—some of whom know each other beforehand, some who are total strangers—and contends that their lives and stories aren’t all that different from one another. The problem with the book, however, is that there isn’t a strong enough theme to hold the characters together. It’s a complex spinning gyre of a novel, but one that doesn’t have a single point of rotation, and the narrative is unwieldy and relatively uninteresting as a result.
Set in Gdansk, Poland sometime in the near future, the book follows an unnamed narrator who sends e-mails to an unknown source, telling the stories of these men. This electronic epistolary structure feels a bit unbelievable when you realize that some of these messages are one hundred pages long. The narrator himself writes, “I can tell you’re getting impatient at this point, you’re scrolling down my e-mail,” which is exactly what the reader may wish to do as he scans this side-tale rambling or that extraneous character.
Moreover, the narrator seems much more interested in the broad brushstrokes of storytelling and the surface of things rather than interior meanings and the psychology of the mind. Action rather than thought dictates this novel, tugging us forcefully along. We’re not given any true depth of motive or perspective until the narrator gets around to describing the unveiling of the photograph, which is apparently of more importance than the creation of the work:
The lights had just been switched on, and Mateusz’s Last Supper had only just appeared before the eyes of the assembled company, when from the back of the gathering we heard a strange noise. Twelve young men lined up like the vanguard pushed their way to the front, rather sharply and firmly, not without shoving. . . . The crowd giving way must have thought it was a comic performance: after all, in our city people were used to seeing stronger stuff than that. Halfway to the painting they started chanting loudly: “We are artists too! We are apostles too!” Then events progressed at lightning speed. They flung back the capes, and with a single, practised movement pulled gas masks over their faces. . . . From under the capes, cylinders appeared fixed to their backs, with pumps attached. Twelve streams of chemicals spurted onto Mateusz’s canvas. . . . The whole thing brought the avant-gardists incredible success.
Probably the most poetic passage in this novel—encompassing both creation and destruction, as the men destroy the photograph to create a sort of performance art—is inundated with lines like “Then events progressed at lightning speed” and “The whole thing brought the avant-gardists incredible success,” phrases that feel careless and grate against the potentially deep, disturbing, and contemplative images described.
As if to counteract potential accusations of superficiality, the narrator attempts to prove that he is also well-read and knowledgeable of the arts. References to Ulysses, particularly the phrase “The ineluctable modality of the visible,” are emphasized throughout. Joyce’s influence is touched on later as the men are debating who they’ll be in the photograph:
“But who is meant to be who?” asked Father Monsignore. “Hasn’t it been established?”
“No,” replied Jerzy Zajac, “each of us should remain himself.”
“No one knows who he’ll be in this incarnation,” said Siemasko, clearly livening up. “Don’t you believe in the transmigration of souls, Father? Reincarnation? I think in a former life I was a high priest of the god Ra, in Memphis.”
“Listen, hey, listen,” [said Malkowicz,] “they’ve found the perpetrator of the bomb attacks, he gave himself up.”
This transmigration of souls is the core of Ulysses and its theory of metempsychosis, one rationale as to why Joyce’s novel is packed with hundreds and thousands of literary allusions that the characters themselves (and most readers) are blind to. But as the aforementioned quote reveals, the contemporary setting of The Last Supper cannot maintain such philosophical debate and inquiry. History, politics, and—above all—immediate, sensationalist news consumes any fascinating ponderings the characters would be able to have. At this time, no higher truths can be contemplated (no matter how serious or silly Siemasko was about to become); only the current moment matters. Just as they are about to argue the movement of souls throughout time, they’re distracted by a rash of unrelated, newsworthy bombings, and thus lose focus on their ideas. Here, politics and news subsumes philosophy and literature.
Despite these short highlighted ruminations, The Last Supper disappoints by giving us nothing to hold on to, no character to sympathize with, and no story thread that compels us to read it. It’s a mess of almost-anonymous personalities that don’t build up to a creation that is worth wrapping one’s mind around. If anything it feels murky, filled with a random array of creatures and events that don’t congeal. For, as a character exclaims in a sort of hysteria: “‘But it’s just not possible.’ She was almost in tears. ‘There has to be some order. At least in the seasons of the year! It doesn’t make sense!’” Unfortunately you have to trudge through to get to any of these subtle gems hidden within this text. And at the end of the day, for this work, they don’t seem to be worth the effort.
Salvatore Ruggiero attended Cornell and Oxford Universities. His writing has appeared in Rain Taxi, Powell’s, and the Five Borough Book Review. Currently working in publishing, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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