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Passarola Rising
Azhar Abidi
Paperback

 

INTRODUCTION

In the early years of the eighteenth century, a Brazilian-born priest named Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão traveled to Lisbon and dedicated himself to designing a flying ship that he called the Passarola. So much is known to history. In Passarola Rising, first-time novelist Azhar Abidi starts out with this nugget of fact and proceeds to spin it into a complex, shimmering narrative of science and suspense in the Age of Reason. Blending crisp historical detail with dreamlike speculation, Abidi has crafted a gripping and original novel about the collision between faith and reason, desire and disillusionment, authority and freedom.

The tale is narrated by Bartolomeu’s younger brother Alexandre, a fascinating figure in his own right—part sensuous dreamer, part ambitious adventurer. As the book opens, Alexandre recounts the triumphant launch of the Passarola on June 27, 1731, as the Portuguese royal court looks on and celebrates a new age of exploration. But Bartolomeu’s triumph is short-lived. The powerful Cardinal Conti, enforcer of the Inquisition in Portugal, argues that flight violates the will of God and moves to arrest the brothers. Casting off in the Passarola as Portuguese soldiers close in, Bartolomeu and Alex make a desperate flight—literally—for freedom in France.

The brothers are welcomed to Paris as exponents of the latest scientific breakthroughs. They dine with Voltaire and dance with the most fashionable ladies of Louis XV’s court. Alex embarks on a series of amorous adventures while Bartolomeu debates with the philosophes. But when the King himself takes an interest in the flying ship, the brothers’ lives veer off in a radically different direction. Louis XV, at once intellectually curious and ruthlessly political, instantly grasps the military and scientific advantages of flight and presses the Passarola into serving his ambitious. As the airship embarks first on a doomed military campaign and then on a perilous scientific mission to the North Pole, tensions mount between the two brothers. Though Alex has promised Bartolomeu to bear witness in case anything happens, he comes to regret having anything to do with his brother’s obsessive dream of penetrating the secrets of the upper air.

Under its crystalline, deceptively simple surface, Abidi’s narrative touches on deep issues that emerged in the Enlightenment and continue to resonate today—the clash between faith and reason, the promise and betrayal of technology, the consuming desire to push at the boundaries of the known world, and the violence that so often accompanies this quest. The book also probes the nature of the bond between brothers, the love that unites them and the intense ambitions that so often come between them. Artistically, Passarola Rising is a daring experimental novel that breaks new ground in combining history, science, exotic adventure, and fabulous invention. Azhar Abidi has been compared to Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne, but his debut novel truly stands alone as a work both utterly unique and endlessly thought provoking.

 

ABOUT AZHAR ABIDI

Azhar AbidiAzhar Abidi was born in Pakistan and lives in Melbourne, Australia. His work has been published in The Guardian Weekly, the Australian literary journal Meanjin, and in The Best Australian Essays 2004.

 

A CONVERSATION WITH AZHAR ABIDI

In your author’s note at the end, you make it clear that Passarola Rising is based on the actual story of Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão—though you also note that “the adventures of Bartolomeu and his brother, both real historical figures, are fictitious.” How did you arrive at this delicate balance of history and fiction? Did you know from the start that you would depart from the historical record, or did the story run away with you as you wrote it?

I wanted to write about a flying ship long before I read about Bartolomeu Lourenço. A sketch of the story lay in my drawer for many years, but it needed a character and a voice. When I read about Bartolomeu, I knew that I had found the character. Through his brother, Alexandre, I created the voice. The historical record served me well as a basis but history only goes that far. I took departures from history wherever they suited the story.

The scenes set in Lisbon that open the book are so crisp and vivid—as is your evocation of the Arctic later on. How much traveling did you do to the places you wrote about? With places you were unable to visit, on what did you base your descriptions?

I read about the places and researched them but I did very little traveling. From the beginning, I was interested in the mental life of my characters—how they felt about the world, their impressions, their feelings, sensations, and emotions as they perceived the world, rather than how the world existed objectively. Lisbon was easy to re-create as I pictured it might have looked because the old city was completely destroyed by the earthquake of 1755. The Arctic was interesting too because it is such a remote and solitary place. I tried to imagine how pioneers might have perceived it for the first time. Many things that we take for granted now must have seemed truly wondrous and extraordinary to them. What inspired me here were the early explorers from the great age of exploration, who used to return to civilization with accounts of mermaids, dragons, and monsters. It is such perceptions that I tried to capture in my book rather than dry, objective facts.

Some readers may be familiar with Montgolfier’s hot air balloon, but Bartolomeu and his flying ship have slipped into obscurity. How did you learn of this incident? What about it seized your imagination?

Portugal was a seafaring nation that produced some great explorers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but a few hundred years later, Spain and England had overtaken it and become the reigning naval powers. In the early eighteenth century, the Portuguese king, João V, gave Bartolomeu Lourenço a commission to build a flying ship in the hope that such a device might restore the lost glory of Portugal. I read about him in a book on aviation history. His factual, real-life exploits are far less dramatic than what happens to him in this story, but isn’t it just possible, however improbable, that the true story behind his adventures has been lost? It was this idea—that history might not be a true and complete record of everything—that seized my imagination.

Was this always a first person narrative—or did you ever consider writing it in the third person? Tell us about how you created the character of Alexandre. In many ways, he seems modern in his self-doubt and restlessness, and yet he’s entirely believable as a figure of the early Enlightenment. Is he based on anyone you know? Or on aspects of your own personality?

I wrote an early draft in the third person before switching to the first person. The story flowed when I imagined myself in Alexandre’s shoes. There are bits of me in both the characters but I emphasize more with Alexandre’s doubts, restlessness, and regrets. Does he seem modern? I think that the questions he grapples with—questions of meaning, moral choices, and fulfillment—were as relevant in the early Enlightenment as they are today. As for regret, I suspect that the thought “What if I had . . . ?” must be as old as humankind.

Bartolomeu is an ordained Catholic priest yet at the same time a freethinking scientist who reads Newton, Descartes, Leibniz. Did the historical Bartolomeu share these interests? Was it rare in this period for priests to immerse themselves in the works of rationalist philosophers? Did the historical Bartolomeu wrestle with the contradictions between Christianity and Enlightenment science?

Jesuits have a long and very honorable scientific tradition. Bartolomeu was only one of them. Another Jesuit, Father Francesco Lana-Terzi, wrote down the principles of a flying ship in 1670, in his work Prodromo dell’Arte Maestra. The ship was meant to be lighter than air. He never built the ship because of his own vows of poverty and his conviction that God would never allow such a device to be brought into existence because of its destructive potential, but he was convinced that spheres filled with vacuum would allow it to rise and float in the atmosphere.

You are very precise and explicit about the exact dimensions of the ship. How did you determine these? Did you just invent this out of whole cloth, or is it based on science—or on a surviving document?

I started with some simple principles of ship building and sailing. Once I had familiarized myself with these, I sketched out the dimensions of the Passarola on a piece of paper, and, using some basic science, calculated its weight and volume with the help of a spreadsheet. The mathematical integrity of the project is sound, but we know now that it does not work in practice. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, however, before balloons were invented, people like Francesco Lan-Terzi did not have the benefit of what we know today. The ship is very much based on the scientific beliefs of the time.

You were born in Pakistan, educated in England, and now live and work in Australia. Tell us about how and why you made these moves. To what extent did your experiences of moving between cultures influence the themes of Passarola Rising?

I have spent half of my life in Pakistan and the other half in Europe and Australia, studying and working. My experience of moving between cultures has taught me that there are always two sides to the story. They are not always equal but more often than not, they are. It all depends on who you are and where you come from. Perspective changes everything. Truth, falsehood, justice, and injustice are subjective notions. I will give you one example. India had become an English colony during the nineteenth century, but when the Indians rose against the occupiers in 1857, English historians called it the “Mutiny.” Indians called it the First War of Independence. Where lies the truth? In hindsight, who is right? Colonial histories are littered with examples of the one-sided perspective. This makes me very suspicious of history, and that is why I had no qualms about writing an alternative history.

You have written about fantastical flights on more than one occasion. Do you in fact love to fly? Have you ever piloted your own plane or dreamed of doing so? Which appeals to you more—a plane, a flying ship, or a magic carpet?

I don’t particularly enjoy flying, but I find the idea of escape, of fleeing and leaving all troubles and conventions behind, very appealing. Fiction is my escape. The flying ship of Passarola Rising and the magic carpet in one of my earlier stories, “The Secret History of the Flying Carpet,” are metaphors of escape—both physical and mental.

Your book is set two hundred years ago and concerns an obscure incident in European history and yet in many ways the themes running through it remain vital and unresolved today. Talk about the creative process by which you weave contemporary ideas and issues into a historical narrative.

I wanted to write about the limited ability of science to describe the richness of human experience. I set the plot during the Enlightenment—a time of struggle between religion and science—because we are reaping the fruits of the Enlightenment. We think of religion in terms of faith and dogma, and science in terms of reason, logic, and rationalism, but in my mind, science is as much about faith in empiricism and materialism as is religion about spiritualism. Science demands proof as evidence of truth. Anything that cannot be proven risks being dismissed. Surely whether something cannot be proven does not mean that it does not exist. The human experience is far too rich, mysterious and deep to be captured by scientific method. That question, I believe, is as unresolved today as it was then. And that is the gist of my book.

Toward the end of the book you write about Bartolomeu studying gravity in the frigid Arctic, “for him, all the hardship we bore was worth this crumb of knowledge.” Does this reflect your personal feelings regarding knowledge?

You might have guessed by now that I am a skeptic. I treat knowledge with respect but also with a degree of skepticism. To my mind, there is no such thing as true knowledge. Everything is filtered through our consciousness. Everything is subjective. And sometimes, only seeing is believing.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. At the very opening of the book, Bartolomeu begs his brother, “if worst comes to worst and something happens to me, will you bear my witness?” Talk about bearing witness as a central theme in this book. To what extent does Alexandre succeed in his brother’s request?

  2. Bartolomeu and Alexandre’s mother thinks of Brazil as her purgatory—and yet when the brothers return to Portugal, they find the Old World stifling, corrupt, and dangerous. Discuss how Abidi plays off this age-old conflict between the Americas and Europe. To what extent does Alexandre’s disenchantment with Brazil and later with Lisbon undermine his ability to be happy anywhere? To what extent is this restlessness a product of the times, when all sorts of new ideas were bursting forth?

  3. This is a book that covers a huge amount of ground—from the port towns of Brazil to the bordellos of Paris, from battlefields in Poland to the desolate frozen wastes of the Arctic. How successful is Abidi in conjuring up these exotic places both visual and emotionally? What are some of his narrative strategies and techniques for making so many varied places come alive?

  4. Two very different brothers dominate this novel. Examine how their relationship evolves and why conflicts arise between them. Which brother do you relate to more? Which do you think is more successful as a fictional character? Which would you prefer as a business partner, traveling companion, friend, teacher? Why?

  5. Abidi has compounded a unique blend of actual history and imaginary fiction bordering on magic realism. Why do think he chose to mix fact and invention in this way, rather than write a strictly historical novel or a strictly fabricated one?

  6. Bartolomeu shocks his fellow priests by asserting, “It is harder to prove the presence of God than his absence.” In many ways, despite the fact that he is a priest, Bartolomeu embodies the essence of Enlightenment science. And yet he is a priest and never leaves the priesthood. Discuss the strains of science and religion as they run through this character, and through the book as a whole. Does Abidi hint that an integration of science and religion, spirit and materialism, might be possible on some higher plane?

  7. “Perhaps some truths are best left hidden,” Alexandre tells his brother early in the book. To which Bartolomeu replies, “Fear, Alex, is our greatest enemy.” In this exchange, which brother do you side with and why? Are there truths that we have explored in recent years that we should have left hidden? In your discussion, consider the letter at the end of the book in which Bartolomeu asserts, “Nobody can discover the truth. Truth is what you believe.”

  8. In many ways, Cardinal Conti is the book’s villain, yet he’s right on target when he declares that “flying machines will bring great disturbance to mankind. Those who possess them will use them against those without.” Consider how the greatest advances of science have been associated with newfound powers of destruction. Have we made any strides forward in curbing the destructive aspect of technological advances—or are we still trapped in the dilemma the cardinal raises?

  9. This is a brief, swift novel and yet an awful lot is packed in it—not just a complicated plot but ideas, history, characters both actual and imagined. Consider the methods by which Abidi manages to fashion such a large sweeping story in such a short space. Pick out a few passages to read that reveal his linguistic economy, his uses of striking images and resonant incidents.

  10. How reliable do you think Alexandre is as a narrator? How much does he color events by his own yearnings, fears, doubts? Talk about what the book would be like if it were narrated by Bartolomeu or by an omniscient third person narrator.

  11. There is always a temptation to look for biographical clues in fictional characters—but at first glance that seems impossible here. After all, Abidi was born in Pakistan, educated in England, and now lives in Australia. What would lead a young author to write about figures so remote from his own culture and experience? Do you see any hidden parallels between Abidi’s own experiences and that of his heroes?

  12. In the course of their voyage to the North Pole, the brothers have a serious falling out and Alexandre accuses Bartolomeu of being a fanatic. “Is it wrong to have faith?” Bartolomeu demands. “It is, if you think that only you know best,” Alex replies. Talk about the role of fanaticism in human endeavors, be they scientific or religious. Do you agree that faith is wrong if it leads to the conviction that “only you know best”? Or do you think strong belief is necessary for progress? Talk about people you know personally who have achieved much, or destroyed much, through unswerving convictions.