In Capti (The Prisoners), Stephani Berard has written a novel that deserves more of an audience than it will conceivably find. There may be a few relevant reasons for this paucity of readership, but the obvious one is the author’s choice to write his tale of intrigue, farce and metaphysics in Latin — the first novel to be originally published in this language in over 250 years. There are a few tempting presumptions that the reader should avoid upon hearing this: one, that Shakespeare’s pedantic classicist Holophernes has been given a second lease on life; two, that the dreariness of that man’s soul who has written a 600-page novel in a dead tongue could be matched only by his naiveté.
The reality is nothing of the kind. Berard, a professor of Spanish, German and Latin, is a lively writer with apparently nothing of the hubris that has bedeviled teachers of the humanities since time immemorial — namely, the belief that anything worth learning exists under the heading of that subject on which they wrote their doctoral dissertations. Berard flavors his book freely enough with quotations from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, but he shows an equal awareness of the more commonly patronized end of the cultural spectrum with more than occasional asides to well-known figures such as Angelina Jolie and Madonna. Jay (rendered here as Gaius) Leno appears in a scene of perfectly rendered comic awkwardness.
One of the enduring and at times deserved prejudices against classics teachers is that the nature of their subject attracts only the curmudgeonly, the dry, the obscurantist. For this and other reasons, not least among them the loss of faith in the formerly unquestioned idea of what constituted a liberal arts education, our classics departments are empty, and those who teach in them are a barely-tolerated minority at the fringes of academia. This is unpleasant, naturally, but worse still is the indifference to the classics themselves. However, they include some of the most lighthearted literature that humanity has ever composed. The muse of comedy does not fear the polysyllabic sonority of the Latin tongue, and Capti is proof. Berard lets the child within wander through the pages, but takes his story seriously enough that it does not devolve into the learned trifling of a tenured aesthete.
Berard’s capabilities also extend to a Woody Allen-esque taste for mordant candor. One chapter opens: “In principio erat dolor. Et in fine dolor erat. In medio quoque dolor. Cum autem dolor hic ex perpetuo adesset inque perpetuum esset mansurus, id quod perpetuo sentiebatur dolorem esse neque aliam rem sciri nequibat.” (“In the beginning was suffering. And in the end was suffering. Likewise, in the middle there was suffering. But because this suffering had been present always and seemed liable to remain, that which had been felt since the beginning of time was no longer felt to be painful nor, indeed, felt to be anything.”) It is at moments like this that Berard seems most to enjoy his creations and, for all his erudition, is loath to refuse himself a tangent into the absurd.
Berard’s protagonist is one Vudius (Woody), a ballet dancer and Seattleite who suffers from autism and is gifted with an extraordinary memory. The story follows his reconnection with his former wife Olivia as he wanders down the West Coast, eventually to find himself part of a murder mystery. Refreshing in Woody’s character is just enough of the dangerous to make him more than human driftwood in an absurdist comedy. He has a captivating sincerity for all his bumbling. We never fully see all sides of him, but neither do we tire of what is shown. He is highly excitable, alienated from those around him, infinitely small in relation to his surroundings, yet is for all that an indefatigable spark in the black chaos of the universe at large — or the universe of Los Angeles, California, which in the world of the novel is no less terrifying a prospect. The novel begins, for example, with a panicked throng of children fleeing from Disneyland.
Though Capti is full of essayistic meanderings into quantum physics, the problem of evil, mythology and so on, Berard’s comic eloquence elevates the book above the level of a genre specimen. It is unmistakably magical realism, and should sit nicely on the shelf with the works of Italian writer Italo Calvino or American novelist Thomas Pynchon. Like both of these authors, Berard has a knack for weaving both the quotidian and the fantastical into a web pleasing to be tangled in. He can conjure up in a single simile something at once grandiose and sardonic: “Sicut in physica quantali saepius demonstratum erat particulas subatomicas . . . nullo certo loco exstare sed potius, neglecta lucis velocitate, cum ceteris omnibus particulis ubivis versantibus simul recta et proxime coniungi et cum eis reciproce agere posse, ita huius Urbis loci defectus, sive, ‘inlocalitas,’ a nonnulis non vitio vertebatur sed pro re modernissima magnique momenti habebatur.” (“As demonstrated in quantum physics, subatomic particles frequently exist in no exact position. Rather, having passed the speed of light, they are able in any place to unite closely and precisely with all other moving particles and act with them in reciprocity. Thus, ‘unlocality,’ the great drawback of this city [Los Angeles], was not avoided by some as a fault, but was rather held to be a point of great importance and with-it-ness.”)
The vapid and the gauche, both of which appear in this story as in others dwelling on southern California, are rarely spared by the author in his essentially good-natured running commentary on the oddly humorous concatenation of modernity. Berard’s voice is something like a modern Epicurus, fond of this life, of a nature replete with all of those quirks that the advance of science seems only to magnify, happy to be a skeptic and smile at human folly, but never so angry as to shout it down.
That being said, Professor Berard is fortunately more than a copyist. He writes poetry that is sharp and wonderfully vivacious. He shows himself to be master of a number of verse forms, including the old Goliard stanza of countless medieval drinking songs, a meter in which he weaves his own sort of clever nonsense verse: “Vitae arbos est inversa. Radix sursum, summa mersa. Terrae mediae diversa Manant iam in universa.” (“The tree of life is upside down. Roots high, and top sunk underground, Meanwhile, the parts of midmost earth Go swimming through the universe.”)
Berard has his fair share of fun letting his characters let loose the occasional volley of reproach when folly happens to cross their sights. If he has one fault as a satirist, it is a habit of satisfying himself with easy targets — the general crassness of postmodern man, for instance — with no real desire to change anything because he enjoys the joke only too well. At one or two points in the book I was reminded of English novelist George Meredith, another highly inventive ball of eccentric energy, and his observation that “There must be the moralist in the satirist if the satire is to strike. The stroke is weakened and art violated if he comes to the front.” The moralist in Professor Berard is, it seems, having a coffee and a cigarette behind the venue, unmotivated to come anywhere near the stage.
The book is shot through with the idea of a meta-universe, one in which locality and non-locality, being and non-being, appear to be either the same or unknowable. However, the humanity of the characters and palpable sympathy of the author toward them imbue too much sanity into the Berard-cosmos for us to take his ruminations without a grain of salt.
Whatever the shortcomings of the book, they amount to technical flaws of no damning proportion. Berard is a clever stylist, shining especially in the several poetic interludes that occur as thematic ramifications throughout the novel. He has done one better than to write what he knows, and that is to write what he loves. This is a promising first novel — part one of a seven-part series, as if the author had not already shown himself to be sufficiently ambitious — and if it does not ignite a fad and send the hipsters scurrying for a copy of Wheelock’s Latin Grammar, then Professor Berard can take comfort in the knowledge that an immortal language is too good for the fashions it is sure long to outlive.