The setting for Canadian writer Thomas Trofimuk’s inventive, charming new novel, Waiting for Columbus, is a mental institution in Sevilla, Spain. There, a 21st-century inmate persuasively argues that he is actually the legendary 15th-century navigator Christopher Columbus.
Although medical personnel initially suspect his is a stereotypically disturbed mind—like that of an inmate who calls herself Pope Cecilia, purporting to be the first woman Pope—they are startled by his detailed and colorful knowledge of his subject, time period and descriptions of his ostensibly first-person experiences.
Columbus, as they dutifully call him, speaks with an incisive vocabulary and tells 15th-century stories with uncanny credibility. At the same time, he also has a disjointed, perhaps playful habit of interspersing his stories with contemporary elements that do not fit—like telephones in the time of Ferdinand and Isabella.
Nurse Consuela, a beautiful and witty woman, listens intensely to his stories and writes them down for psychiatrists. In spite of Columbus’ sometimes destructive behavior, she finds herself increasingly attracted to the intellectual, cultured side of this mysterious man and patient.
Soon, however, Consuela becomes frustrated with Columbus; his salacious stories of romantic encounters with women exotically named Beatriz, Selena—and even Queen Isabella—make her inexplicably jealous. And the more she comes to know about Columbus, the more questions she has about the nature of his true identity.
Dr. Fuentes, the medical chief of the facility, loses interest in Columbus, but Dr. Balderas, who replaces him, is anxious to unravel his personal story. His chats with Columbus create rapport, just as Consuela’s have—and together Balderas and Consuela begin to unravel the nature of Columbus’ past.
The author is inventive in structuring a multifaceted story that never loses its vitality. His literary gifts allow him to portray each character with depth, while at the same time creating a rising sense of suspense at the possibility of uncovering Columbus’ true identity.
While the name Thomas Trofimuk is hardly one that trips easily off the tongue, we can only hope that this promising novelist will continue to create fascinating fiction.
Dennis Lythgoe is a writer who has lived in Boston and Salt Lake City.