With the recent battles surrounding evolution, and the insidious influence of the religious right on public policy, Azhar Abidi’s debut novel, Passarola Rising is a timely (and timeless) fable. It is a philosophical romance, a distant cousin of Voltaire’s and Calvino’s work with a whimsical nod to St. Exupery. Like Voltaire—who appears in the novel—Abidi critiques the forces of organized religion and anti-intellectualism through fantasy and satire. Like Calvino and St. Exupery, Abidi has created a tall tale about flight that’s porous and full of air. The philosophy (and the physics) are decidedly featherweight, but it is an immensely enjoyable read.
Abidi takes the seeds of a true story, and embellishes it with a Baron Munchausen-like glee.
In the sixteenth century, Brazilian-born priest Bartolomeu Lourenco moved to Lisbon, Portugal, where he began to work on a flying machine, called the Passarola, which means "large bird" in Portuguese. It was tested out in front of the Portuguese court, where it attracted the attention of the Inquisition. Lourenco left Portugal and spent the remainder of his life in Spain. All that remains of Lourenco’s work are drawings for a ship, which do not suggest room for human cargo.
Abidi takes this curious footnote and constructs an alternate history for the visionary priest. In this version of history, Lourenco builds a flying ship, powered by four copper vacuum bulbs, and enlists his younger brother Alexander as an assistant. The two of them flee to France, where they are hosted by Voltaire, and given various missions by Louis XV, who is enamored of the Passarola.
Bartolemeu becomes a fearless proponent of scientific reason. He has given up his devotion to God and replaced it with a devotion to exploration, one that gets him in trouble more than once. Portrayed by Alexander, the narrator of the novel, Bartolemeu is the ultimate idealist, blithely unaware of decorum or social diplomacy:
His childlike trust in destiny, a cynic might call it recklessness, won me over and I began to consider my service in a new light, where it required courage and valor, and the vanity, as I vaguely suspected then and certainly know now, of greatness lifted my courage and calmed my fears.A particularly amusing scene has the former priest shooting down (in scientific terms) mad King George of England’s idea for a flying ship of his own. The major tension in the novel comes from Bartolemeu’s unbridled élan for discovery clashing against the more earthbound concerns of kings and military leaders. A dangerous rescue mission in Poland almost ends the flights of the Passarola.
Alexander is both perplexed and intrigued by his brother’s obsession with flight. Through his various voyages, he comes to understand his brother, and conveys the near-religious experience of flight:
The Passarola began to climb. Now I could see the entire estate, the church and the pastor’s residence below me... I then saw the fields, like a chessboard of green and golden squares draped over the hills... The land glowed at the horizon. The sky where the sun had sunk was burnt red, The seven hills were lit with its last rays... The air was cold and except for the sound of the wind in our sails, we were surrounded by silence.The Lourenco brothers manage to convince Louis XV to fund scientific expeditions, and here the novel hits its lyrical stride. Like the early science fiction of Jules Verne, Abidi conveys a since of wonder. Passage after passage describes the beauty and strangeness of the natural world.
We were flying high above a thunderstorm. The tip of our mast was ablaze with St. Elmo’s fire—our standard, a tongue of blue flame. A scarf of bright light began to rise from the horizon, gliding swiftly up into the sky.... Soon the sky below up was also glowing with fiery orange and strange purple lights. Some of them had distinct pulsing forms, and tendrils, red and white, that extended up into the void, like the roots of some celestial garden.The two brothers are commissioned to explore the Arctic circle. It is during this voyage that Alexander finds he doesn’t share Bartolemeu’s sense of adventure. The two of them part ways after Alexander suffers a near-fatal illness, and he hears of his brother’s exploits from afar.
As with some of Calvino's books, Passarola Rising conveys essentially abstract ideas about religion and man’s inquisitive nature with prose infused with a comic tone. This tone was the one problem I had with the novel. It was like a meringue—a little too cloying. The Cardinal that chases the Lourencos has some hackneyed, anti-climatic lines. I was waiting for the Swiftian bite of satire. Whatever satire is present is mostly vague. The influence of the Inquisition is brief, and not as strong a theme in the novel that the blurb on the back cover suggests. Bartolemeu’s soapbox rants about Truth threaten to turn him in a cipher, rather than a fully realized character. The cameos by historical personages are also a bit slight, rather than elucidating. The brief novel is at its best when it goes into full picturesque mode, both in its lyrical tone and the episodic plot structure.
Ultimately, Passarola Rising belongs in the same category as The Little Prince, because it is less an allegory about religious persecution and the search for Truth than it is a boy’s adventure story.