“First up, a disclaimer. I suspect I am a dead man. I have meagre proof, no framed-up certification, nothing to toss in a court of law as evidence of a rapid departure from the mortal coil. I recall a gun was involved, pressed up against my skull, and a loud explosion followed.”
Thus begins our narrator in a purgatorial tour through twentieth-century Japanese history, with a ghostly geisha who has seen it all as a guide and a corrupt millionaire as her reluctant companion.
It is hard to quantify Andrez Bergen’s book One Hundred Years of Vicissitude. It is a strange mixture of science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction and as such may have a hard time finding its audience. To be honest, it took me quite a bit to get into this story, having to reread the first couple of pages a few times before being able to process them. In fact, I was having such a hard time getting into the story, I actually doubted whether I’d get through the story, as I just couldn’t find my footing; only the fact that I’d promised to read and review it and that I blamed my having a hard time getting with the program on having a massive head-cold, kept me from actually doing so and moving on to a new book. In the end, I’m glad I stuck it out, because while it was hard to get with the narrative voice, once the story got going and I got beyond the first twenty pages or so, when we meet Kohana, I was on board and got sucked into the novel.
One Hundred Years of Vicissitude is a rather fragmented narrative, as the story consists of Kohana and our narrator, Wolram E. Deaps, flitting from memory to memory. Although this manner of narration is quite interesting, it does tend to form a bit of a barrier to the text; due to the fragmented memories it is hard to see where we are at any given moment and it took a while and some thought to understand the point, as it were, to this story. Not that every story has to be easily understood, but this one really took some work, since it’s not a linear story. While moving through her memories, Kohana goes off on tangents, sometimes because of questions Deaps asks, other times seemingly by free association. Of course, this is how memory works; memories are evoked by the senses, by associations and by their connections to each other. However, this seemingly random recollection can be confusing, until the reader can discover a pattern.
Unfortunately, there are some loose ends: Kohana’s father, who is referenced throughout the text, but never shows his face, feels like somewhat of an unidentified cipher who, it seems, should have been confronted at some point of the story for Kohana to be able to finally move on. Similarly, there is the narrator’s daughter and his battle against established medicine. His story is tantalisingly unfinished which is both frustrating and maybe the point—this is not his story and his time to tell it has yet to come. I can just imagine him sitting in Kohana’s hovel waiting for the next soul to show up and have them accompany him through his memories and give him his own absolution and redemption.
We do not learn a lot about our narrator’s history, this is mostly Kohana’s story. And hers is a story about love and forgiveness, forgiveness of her own trespasses and forgiveness of trespasses against her. It’s only after Kohana has forgiven herself for moving on after losing her first love and losing her twin sister that she is able to move on from purgatory. Surprisingly, there is no forgiveness for her father, only a dismissal, and of her rather awful relationship with her daughter, nothing is said beyond the daughter’s conception and the fact that their relationship was very bad, perhaps due to Kohana’s regard of her. I’d have expected both these things to play a bigger role. In a similar vein our narrator needs to forgive himself for how he lived his life and the loss of his daughter.
There are a lot of allusions to different works of art, both books and films, but also other expressions of art. The author acknowledges this at the end of the book and I had a lot of fun finding them throughout the story. One Hundred Years of Vicissitude is an interesting story and according to the afterword would probably have gained more depth and clarity if I’d read his previous novel Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat. Despite this, I was quietly engaged by this story of love, forgiveness and redemption. Its author’s love of Japanese culture rose from every page of the book. If this is only Bergen’s second novel I look forward to seeing where he goes in the future. If you’re not in the mood to take a gamble and put in some work, then it would be wise to give this book a pass. However, if you like interesting, non-conventional literature, whether it is literary, science-fiction, fantasy, or any other genre, One Hundred Years of Vicissitude might be just the book for you. It is an interesting look at what purgatory might look like and how it functions and it’s thought-provoking to say the least.
This book was sent to me for review by the author.