Reviewed by E. B. Heath
Lenny Bartulin bestows a reading experience of a very different kind!
Fortune begins as a light breeze. Vast crowds gather as Napoleon parades through Berlin in 1806. Within a few pages, gale force winds of war propel hapless characters, along with readers, through one hundred and ten years of history, over and back through Europe, South America, and Australia. And, finally, blowing into the dark days of Europe in 1916, where the novel abruptly ends.
And it was Wonderful!
I have long since thought that structure makes or breaks a novel. Whereas linear lines of action can be mundane, flashing past and present timelines can feel like strobe lighting if not written seamlessly. In this, Bartulin is skilled.
The structure of Fortune is organised as a fast moving kaleidoscope of titled, short scenes, the past woven into the present. This, seemingly, haphazard structure of the novel gives the reader a real sense of the turmoil that the characters are experiencing, as their lives are destabilised by history in the making and random events. Bartulin has the character Krüger express the premise of the novel:
The truth is that we churn in a state of circular intertwining … caught in a ceaseless and immutable folding, like … like cards shuffled by the gods. There are only so many combinations.’
Most amusingly, the gods are characters too – not often on centre stage, nevertheless, readers feel their presence brooding in the background. They are mostly associated with chaos. Bartulin is even handed, not favouring any one culture. Readers fleetingly meet: Djunkgao Australian Aboriginal sister deities, Tialoc of Aztec origin, Tiamat of Babylon, and Enlil a Sumerian god of the air. This eclectic bunch is perhaps chosen to show that there is a universal appreciation of the fickle nature of life that must be accounted for within culture.
It is in Berlin, 1806, that readers meet the main characters. We meet others, who either float in and out as incidental, or take up proper supporting roles. But in the main they are all here in 1806. Then, the gods huff and puff, and that aforementioned gale blusters in and scatters them onto their individual paths; their lives take odd shapes, one thing leads to another.
The history here is public knowledge – Napoleon and his mistresses, the brutality of slavery, transportation to Australia, colonialism and the First World War. But the individual stories are personal.
If the poet, Johannes, had managed to squeeze through the crowd to see Bonaparte, as his friends had done, he would not have gone to bed with Beatrice in the house of her employer, Claus von Rolt, and he would not have dropped the shell, … and changed the course of his whole life.
This is an exhilarating and very entertaining novel. It is unusual to find poetic prose, evocative descriptions and fast pace writing in the same novel. But here it is – Fortune.
By Lenny Bartulin
Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 9 781760 529307
Pp. 292; RRP: $29.99