Correction: Information posted earlier about Bob Shacochis’s Sept. 18 visit to Washington had an incorrect address for the Tenley-Friendship Library.
National Book Award-winner Bob Shacochis publishes so infrequently that fans of his previous novel, “Swimming in the Volcano,” have probably retired by now. That’s good because they’ll need the extra time to wend their way through his engrossing, thoroughly overwhelming new book. “The Woman Who Lost Her Soul” is a spy novel the way “Moby-Dick” is a fishing tale. Although it never reaches the attack on the World Trade Center, it’s a soaring literary epic about the forces that have driven us to the 9/11 age. Shacochis has choreographed a spellbinding dance of 20th-century atrocities and countermeasures to explore the foundations of America’s millennial ambitions and the human cost of such hubris.
Be prepared for considerable demands. Members of the U.S. intelligence community with a deep knowledge of Haitian culture, Croatian history and Turkish politics will find this novel a breeze. Others will be taking panicked notes in the margins of their heavy, sweat-stained copies. Shacochis darts around the globe over the span of five decades like a sorcerer of world history: Locations shift, time swirls, characters reappear in new disguises with new names. He’s always so relentlessly captivating that you don’t dare fall behind.
The novel pours forth in Shacochis’s torrential style, festooned by his baroque vocabulary, one indefatigable paragraph after another, the phrases ricocheting into hypnotic fractals of grammatical complexity that would send a sentence diagrammer shrieking in terror. Each of the book’s five sections is cast in a slightly different mold, with its own shaded tenor, from political thriller to historical fiction to psychological drama. And those sections come to us out of chronological order, a complication that initially seems maddening but lures us deeper into the kaleidoscopic minds of these spooks who can melt the solid matter of time and identity.
The earliest part opens on the wasted landscape of Croatia during the German occupation of World War II. Eight-year-old Stjepan Kovacevic sees his father beheaded by one of Tito’s Muslim partisans. Before the blood even stops flowing, the boy and his mother flee toward the sea, determined to reach the United States, “the only place strong enough to defeat the enemies of Christ our savior.” In Shacochis’s electrified narrative, this is a frightening odyssey through a society with nothing “left to believe in except the horror of existence.” Military order has collapsed; soldiers devolved into thugs bribe and shoot and rape, knowing they don’t have long to live anyway. For little Stjepan, this ordeal is an indelible introduction “to his destiny, the spiritual map that guides each person finally to the door of the cage that contains his soul.”
That reference to the boy’s soul isn’t a rhetorical affectation. Shacochis’s approach is not outwardly theological, but, as the title suggests, “The Woman Who Lost Her Soul” is a novel invested in the health of souls. His concern for the spiritual implications of patriotism casts a religious aura over this saga reminiscent of the work of Graham Greene. Sin, baptism, rebirth, resurrection — in these pages those theological terms are blessed by the sort of serious consideration that rarely has a prayer in contemporary literary fiction.
When we see Stjepan Kovacevic again, he’s been transfigured into an elegant, though shadowy, undersecretary named Steven Chambers. The little boy’s inchoate desire for vengeance against the enemies of Christ now finds expression in the spycraft of the most powerful nation on Earth. Wielding almost magical military technology, bottomless black-box funding and special ops men trained to godlike prowess, Chambers and his “Friends of Golf” (FOG)pursue “the self-dramatizing schemes of overheated minds, unrestrained in power and influence and felonious inspiration.” Their crusade against the infidels rages away entirely beyond the purview of Capitol Hill and those silly politicians who imagine they’re in control.
Shacochis spins political shenanigans with tremendous verve, but what deepens the novel is the way he attends to the psychological and spiritual repercussions of this “exalted passion to remake the world.” Chambers has raised his brilliant, multilingual daughter, Dorothy, in the furnace of his maniacal obsession with the divine cause. The spectacular middle section of the novel, set in Istanbul in 1986, shows us 17-year-old Dorothy torn between life as a happy teenager and work as her father’s spy-in-training, “a professional changeling.” Shacochis writes, “She had been overly inducted into his sophistry, its sideline audience for so many years, his beliefs invading and occupying her metabolism until they had become, without the virulence, her own.” Laboring beneath Daddy’s “daunting piety,” his “spidery habit of weaving webs” and his “indecent tutorials in sensation,” she finds herself physically and emotionally traumatized, her identity shattered in ways that prove useful for spycraft but disastrous for her own mental health.
That theme is the rosary on which the episodes of this monumental novel are strung, as various men try to understand or save or love Dorothy, “a humorless neurotic” or the sexy chameleon who warns her would-be saviors that she has no soul. The most intricate web of events finds her in Haiti, a spiritually febrile place where the loss of souls is regarded with utmost seriousness. It’s the late 1990s, after Operation Uphold Democracy, the U.S. mission that Shacochis detailed in his celebrated nonfiction book “The Immaculate Invasion.” Those many months of on-the-ground reporting now infuse his fiction with an intimate knowledge of the politics — local and invasive. “The army arrived in thunder and left in a foul haze of smoke,” he writes, “having performed a magnificent pantomime of redemption.” But as the world lets Haiti “drift away from consciousness on a raft of indifference,” a number of viperous creatures slithers out of the muck: domestic thugs and rebels, North American gangsters, South American drug runners, Middle Eastern terrorists, U.S. agencies with conflicting interests and, of course, Steven Chambers’s cloak-and-dagger minions, who see the island as a “laboratory.” What has drawn Dorothy to this poor island of violence and voodoo is the question Shacochis plumbs for hundreds of pages, almost all of which seem — miraculously — to be absolutely essential.
How fitting that the first character we meet at the start of this extraordinary epic is a human rights advocate determined to ferret out the truth in Haiti. His frustration is a foregone conclusion, a bloody confirmation of Pilate’s cynical response to Jesus, “What is truth?” Shacochis knows this troubled part of the world where “ignorant armies clash by night,” and he understands the boundless woe spawned by meddling patriots pursuing their crusades. Dorothy may be a clever partner with her father’s FOG men or one of their many victims — or both. After a lifetime of trafficking in “partial truths and confused ripping crosscurrents of bad agendas and perfidious motivations,” she’s a mystery even to herself. Her real desires remain buried in her battered heart, more irretrievable than Langley’s darkest schemes. What’s clear, though, is that the serpentine path of her search for redemption in this novel provides a profound reflection on the soul of America.
Charles is the deputy editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
On Sept. 18 at 7 p.m., Shacochis will be at the Tenley-Friendship Library, 4450 Wisconsin Ave. NW. For information, call Politics & Prose at 202-364-1919. On Sept. 23 at 6 p.m., Shacochis will be at the Johnson Center on George Mason’s Fairfax Campus as part of the Fall for the Book festival.
THE WOMAN WHO LOST HER SOUL
By Bob Shacochis
Atlantic Monthly. 715 pp. $28