Being published now, amid the turmoil in Mexico, Rupert Thomson's ``Air and Fire'' has a timeliness unusual for a historical novel.
The story is set in Baja California in the 1890s, in a mining town called Santa Sofia. Thomson grounds the plot in the plight of Indians brought to the peninsula to work. Their mistreatment by French mine owners and Mexicans who cater to the wealthy foreigners means the Indians carry ``future grievance in their bellies....'' The novel reaches a crescendo of violence in a night of rioting, which sees Captain Montoya, commander of the local garrison, torn apart alive, the Indians hoping that his suffering will somehow take away theirs.
In the book's climax, readers of Thomson's previous two novels -
``Dreams of Leaving'' and ``The Five Gates of Hell'' - will recognize the sharp surreal prose they have encountered before. But most of ``Air and Fire'' is more subdued and stately. Even through its most violent passages, the writing shows assuredness and control finer than anything Thompson has done.
In the foreground is a romance between Suzanne Valence, a well-to-do French woman, and Wilson Pharaoh, an American with a heart of gold but no pedigree. Their love tries to reach across cultures and classes, and the narrative is thick with descriptions of love, at times beyond the point of saturation. When Suzanne whispers, ``I had so much love in me, and no one wanted it,'' her words do not hit with the force they should. There have already been too many words like them. But the relationship also has a unspoken emotional connection.
Suzanne comes to Baja with her engineer husband, Theophile, who is there to supervise the construction of a metal church designed by Gustave Eiffel. The church arrives in 2,348 pieces, cargo on the same ship that brings the Valences. Managing its construction by the Indians consumes Theophile, who is all but blind to the absurdity of exporting the genius architect's design to Mexico. Losing himself in his work, he also becomes blind to his wife's unhappiness.
Wilson also has a quest in Baja: finding gold. His father, a drifter who deserted his wife and children to look for riches but never found them, bequeathed his son a map and a desire to find what his father never could. Wilson is haunted by memories of his father. Memories is not quite the right word, however, because it doesn't capture the sensation of unity the narrative strives for and frequently achieves when it weaves together past and present.
The brilliance of ``Air and Fire'' comes from the intelligence and insight with which Thomson constructs his story. The first ominous image - ``The sea had turned red overnight'' - marks the blooming of bacteria in the Gulf of California, a phenomenon known as red tide; but to Suzanne, glimpsing the water from the deck of her ship, the image is a portent of problems to come. The event that pulls Wilson out of his waking sleep does not bode much better: About the time Suzanne arrives in town, he is standing on a balcony when the timbers collapse beneath him.
These moments are apt metaphors for what Thomson does with history: Dreams of subduing a land and people crash earthward, and there is blood to pay. The novel ends as elegantly as it begins, with an appropriately sad beauty.