Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Wednesday Ruminations: The Mystery of the Stolen Painting

The Mystery of the Stolen Painting is a book written by Croatian writer Ivan Kušan. The original title is Koko in Paris, but for some reason and wisdom of old someone thought it was good idea to rename the book into something entirely different. I would hazard a guess they did it just to make me frantically look what was the title of the book in English version, since Koko in Paris gave no results.

This book was a dare of sorts. When I was visiting my extended family at the beginning of the month, one of my cousins had to write a bit about the book and answer what seemed to him an endless amount of pointless questions. A literature assignment. He was getting more and more frustrated. And his thoughts were somewhere along the lines, first I had to read this and now they want me to write down what I was reading. Was one torture not enough?

I could understand him. I went through same. I had it easy though as I always loved reading and exploring those new worlds. The only assignment I did not do, was in high school. I had to read Madame Bovary written by Flaubert. I just could not bring myself to finish the book. I hated that woman and I do not even know why I hated her. She was just so void of everything, hollow, shallow.

I was curious about the book my cousin had to write about. His mother told me in short what was it about. Adventure, thieves, detective work, stolen Mona Lisa, Paris. Immediately my imagination took over and filled in the blanks. Turn of the twentieth century, mist, dirty streets, fog, a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Dishonored universe. I was excited, how could this possibly be boring?

To this, my cousin told me to read the book myself and then I can talk. He wanted to know if I would still like it after I read it. I promptly agreed, and after a half a month, I finally borrowed the book and read it. My first disappointment was that the story was not set in the turn of the last century, but instead in seventies. What can I say, I hoped for some more "romantic" period.

As I read the book, I realised it is one of those "it is just a dream" adventures. But instead of this becoming a deterrent of sorts, it only made it more immersive. It was really great tale about Koko and his friend and their misadventures with a stolen Mona Lisa. Their antics of trying to prevent the theft of already stolen painting are priceless. Their approach to the matter at hand inspiring. They are teenagers. And this is an adventure novel.

I liked how Koko is always the optimistic of the two, but in the same breath his friend Zlatko is cynic and a daydreamer I know, a hard combination indeed, and his personality is well indicated by the hairstyle he is later given. The dynamic of these two friends is great. When one does not know what to do, the other will take over and make sure the plot thickens. The show must go on, and the excitement in the novel grows gradually.

The number of characters in the book is limited to thirteen.The cast is diverse and entertaining. I found it fascinating how all of the characters are connected to each other, but besides the reader, the characters know only about a few of connections themselves. There is Marie, young girl who wants to become greatest spy and loves Mata Hari. Katsarida, the boy who wants to play the electric guitar and race on a bike, but his father would prefer him to play a piano.

There is no point in describing them all here. But it is fascinating how the author uses his characters, and subtly explores the intricacies of father-child relations. Koko and Zlatko are outsiders in this. Just like they are outsiders in Paris. But we get to know fathers of Katsarida, Marie, Jean, and Michel.

There are chapters full of action, followed by a chapter of lull. The changing of pace works well, and adds to the overall growth of tension through the book. You are always left wondering about something. You can never be certain of anything. There is no cheap tricks from the author's side to resolve the matter, or to just pull a rabbit out of the hat out of the blue.

There is though author himself. Kušan inserted himself in Koko's dreams. Whenever the group of heroes is lost, or does not know how to continue, the author provides them with a clue. And I do not mean that heroes have an epiphany of sorts and know at once what to do. The author disguises himself as the cripple. With one leg and one eye, he walks the streets of Paris and pays close attention to what his characters are doing. When they get stuck, or do not know what to do, he gives them a piece of advice. "You could abduct him. They went on a buss number 52. You might want to visit a barber."

While we are talking about barbers, the author might have had a grudge against them. It might be that like the protagonists of the novel, he had a hack of barber who ruined his beard and haircut one time too many.

The ending is satisfying, and really shows how to do deus ex machina in this day and age. I think this is the first time, at least to my memory, that I saw this device executed perfectly. Yes, Euripides and his contemporaries loved it, but in those times it was a necessity of sorts. These days, whenever you see deus ex machina, it is mostly a cheap trick to untangle the mess that become of story.

The theme of dreams is strong through the whole story, yet you keep reading as you want to see what else will happen. You keep wondering if Koko will wake up when something goes amiss, or if he will dream his dreams until the end. As for the end of this, let me just quote Koko's rebuttal to his friend's disbelief about his dreams:
"One dream of mine is worth thirteen Parises of yours."
As for my cousin who might read this in a few years, I think the book you had to read was awesome. Even if it does not have the steampunk Victorian feel I first envisioned.

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