Mark Helprin has written two of my favorite novels: Winter’s Tale (In my top 5 novels) & A Soldier of the Great War (In my top 20 novels). I had been looking forward to reading another Helprin novel for a long time. I remembered when Memoir From Antproof Case came out in the Spring 1995. It was his first novel after the success of the aformentioned A Soldier of The Great War. There was quite a few readers at the bookstore I worked at in Santa Fe eager to read it. Well, twenty-five years have passed and I finally got around to reading the novel.
Memoir From Antproof Case was the story of an elderly American named Oscar Progresso who shared his lifestory from a mountain garden in Brazil. Oscar wrote a memoir chronicling his adventures, loves, and hatred of coffee in a funny and illuminating manner. He was an investment banker at the turn of the 20th century and moved in circles where he met the Pope and President of the United States. Oscar was also a pilot, thief, killer, and a man who loved passionately. Helprin created a larger than life protagonist to reveal a man who had everything but wanted to love and be loved more than anything.
“To keep your alive you must be willing to be obstinate, and irrational, and true, to fashion your entire life as a construct, a metaphor, a fiction, a device for the exercise of faith. Without this, you will live like a beast and have nothing but an aching heart. With it, your heart, though broken, will be full, and you will stay in the fight unto the very last.”
This paragraph came from the last page of the novel as Oscar closed his memoir (in a one of kind antproof case) and provided wisdom that will speak beyond the pages of the book. Memoir From Antproof Case did not rise to level of my Helprin’s favorite novels. However, I enjoyed reading it and will remember many paragraphs from a protagonist that gave me a lot of food for thought.
Helprin seems to understand that great fiction is not only about character but setting and the power of the imagination. Fiction is not just about the environment of the everyday or the lives of dysfunctional people. It is about taking a reader somewhere beyond what they expect and show what makes us human. Our contradictions. Our beliefs. Our wildest dreams and fantasies. That is what makes reading so wonderful and powerful simultaneously.