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Jonathan Yardley reviews "In the Company of Angels" by Thomas Kennedy

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, March 21, 2010; B06

IN THE COMPANY OF ANGELS

By Thomas E. Kennedy

Bloomsbury. 276 pp. $25

Anyone who questions the inherent weirdness of American book publishing need look no further than the strange case of Thomas E. Kennedy. Now in his mid-60s, he is a native New Yorker who has published more than 20 books, has received extravagantly favorable reviews, enjoys an international reputation and has been festooned with the Pushcart Prize, the O. Henry Award and other honors almost too numerous to list in this space. Yet with the exception of the occasional essay or short story and two slender volumes of nonfiction, he has gone essentially unpublished in his native country.

Perhaps this is because he has lived in Copenhagen for more than three decades. There's certainly nothing unusual about American writers choosing to live and write abroad -- Gore Vidal leaps to mind as the most prominent recent example -- and still finding plenty of American publishers eager to issue their work. Of course Vidal has lived in Rome while Kennedy has chosen Copenhagen, a city that might as well be off the map so far as most Americans are concerned, but that too seems a pretty flimsy excuse for the neglect that so far has been his fate on this side of the Atlantic.

Whether that will change with the publication of "In the Company of Angels" is impossible to say, though given the usual fate of serious literature in the American marketplace there is little reason to be optimistic. Still, a good publisher has taken him on and declares itself bullish about his American prospects, so there is at least some reason to hope that he will reach something approximating the readership that he clearly deserves.

"In the Company of Angels" is a volume in what Kennedy calls his "Copenhagen Quartet." It is set in that city sometime during or soon after the reign in Chile of Augusto Pinochet, who held office from 1974 to 1990. If that seems a strange way to date a novel set in Denmark, the explanation is simple: Its central character, Bernardo Greene, is a Chilean who was tortured for about two years by Pinochet's thugs and is now in Copenhagen for treatment at one of its centers for the rehabilitation of torture victims. It needs to be pointed out that these are places Kennedy knows well, as he has been an editor and translator of the centers' publications.

Greene, known as Nardo, was a teacher who "told some children about a poet who sang dangerous songs," as he explains to Michela Ibsen, a Danish woman with whom he eventually becomes intensely involved. When she asks how the authorities found out about this, he says: "The usual ways. A pupil who is moved by the poem says something at home. A parent complains. The principal called me in one day. He asked if I had told the pupils that the poet Domingo Gómez Rojas had been tortured by the police and went mad and died in a dungeon. I told [him] yes, I had, and he asked me why. I said because it was so. He asked me what good such information did for the pupils." The torture that followed was brutal, excruciating, insanely clever. Earlier, Nardo had told his story to Michela in the third person:

"They were not seeking information or secrets or a confession from him. Their objective was to break his spirit only because he had been a man the people of his community respected, a teacher. They looked up to him, trusted him, a man not without dignity or the courage to examine his thoughts, his experience, and to tell of what he believed to be so. Not a hero, but a man nonetheless, still a man. Then. He believed what the philosopher Socrates said, that an unexamined life is not worth living. To break the spirit of such a man is to break the spirit of those who looked to him for their identity, for a way to think of themselves as human beings."

The description of torture that follows in Nardo's narrative is too explicit to be quoted here. He was subjected to both physical and psychological pain, including vile comments about his wife and young son who, like so many thousands during the years of Pinochet, ended up among the disappeared. That Nardo survived is nothing short of miraculous, but he did so at great cost. The Danish doctor who is treating him, a good man named Thorkild Kristensen, is able to help him recover the use of an arm that had been badly damaged during the torture. But getting to the psychological damage is far more difficult, not least because it is so painful for Nardo to revisit that time and because he simply does not want to talk about it.

"It occurred to me that we had reached the end of possibility," Kristensen says. "I was tired of this expense of time with so little result. So many months had passed. The cost was too great. His arm was healed. That was good, a substantial result. But so much remained still, and we were getting nowhere." Then, almost from out of nowhere, there is a breakthrough. The doctor asks Nardo, "How did they break you?" and suddenly the words pour forth, in a desperate torrent that leaves no doubt as to the bottomless cruelty of Pinochet's police and the suffering to which Nardo was subjected.

Nardo's principal torturer was a man he thought of as Frog-eyes, whom the doctor contemplates one night, shuddering at "the ugly gaze of a frog-eyed face that ruled my world, sent me patients, broke people, and sent them to me to be repaired again as best I could, which was not very good, laughing at how much better he was at his job than I was at mine." Kennedy understands the terrible intimacy of the relationship between torturer and victim, the polar opposite of the love being sought by Nardo, Michela and many of the others in this story.

Of these others, the most important are Michela's octogenarian parents, shoved away by "the Great Social Democratic Kingdom of Denmark" in a bleak high-rise nursing home, her father dying of cancer and her mother reduced to dementia. There are also Voss, Michela's lover, 10 years her junior, and her ex-husband, Mads, who beat her "maybe a dozen times, twenty times, perhaps twice a year for sixteen years." She and Nardo live in the community of the abused, and eventually we come to understand that whatever hope they have for peace and a semblance of happiness must be given to them by each other.

"In the Company of Angels" -- I leave it to you to discover the explanation for the title -- is powerful and of the moment. Since it was originally published in Denmark in 2004, I suspect it was inspired by torture conducted by the American government in Iraq and Guantanamo, but I didn't detect a whiff of political or ideological posturing in it. Kennedy writes clean, evocative prose, and an occasional note of humor leavens this dark novel. He is a writer to be reckoned with, and it's about time the reckoning got underway in the country of his birth.

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