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Waiting for Columbus by Thomas Trofimuk


Waiting for Columbus by Thomas Trofimuk

We had guest at the cottage last summer exclaim “I can’t believe I’m reading a book about a man in a mental institution who thinks he is Columbus – and I’m liking it.” The novel is Waiting for Columbus by Thomas Trofimuk – and without this recommendation I might not have chosen to read this book. In fact, I liked it more than my friend – I did like the ending, while she did not. You will have to decide for yourself – as I am not going to reveal the ending in this review.

We meet Columbus in a psychiatric hospital in Seville, Spain in the present time. In the mind of Columbus, however, it is the 1400’s and he is describing to his nurse, Consuela, his efforts to put his expedition together to sail into the unknown sea. Consuela is an expert and experienced nurse, and she knows that however much compassion she has for this particular patient – and the attraction she feels to this man – that she must remember always that she is a nurse and he is a patient. This man was brought into the hospital after being found in the water in the Strait of Gibraltar – with no identification and insisting that he is Christopher Columbus. Consuela is an intelligent, well-read woman – living alone after divorce - and she becomes increasingly involved in this case.

Meanwhile we meet Emile, a French man who is seeking a missing man – someone who is “holed up somewhere”. We do wonder who it is – a terrorist? Is the man Columbus faking his illness? If so, he is doing it so brilliantly. This novel is also extremely funny – as Columbus talks about his 15th century home and life – and using the remote control for his television. Consuela thinks his story is a “crazy, mish-mashed, time-crossed slip down a rabbit hole. And the teller is, of course, institutionalized”.

The tale that Columbus tells is a wild one – accurate generally to the history of the time of Columbus and the life of that man – but with modern day cell phones and other technology thrown into the mix. In one of the funniest scenes, the phone rings, and Columbus exclaims “It could be the Queen”, as he is waiting for the approval of Queen Isabella to provide the ships for his expedition. I laughed out loud more than once – while at the same time feeling such concern for this man who, it becomes increasingly clear, is dealing with some sort of trauma.

And it all works – crazy as it is. We actually learn a lot about Spain in the 1490’s, this man really knows his history – delusional or not. It is a crazy mixed up world of watching Westerns on television and experiencing Spain at the time of the Inquisition – with contemporary language coming out of the mouth of Queen Isabella. We easily follow Columbus into the past – and are then jolted back to the present in this crazy mixed-up world he is living in. Another very funny scene is Columbus coming outside after a meeting with the Queen – and he can’t find his car in the lot.

There is humour as well in Emile’s quest, as he follows the trail of the man he is seeking – listening to people in bars who have met this man. He is told “the guy has three ships” but at the same time he seems to be scrounging his way through Southern Spain.

We do eventually discover who this man is – none of us would truly believe he is Christophe Columbus – although it is often tempting. I did guess what had happened to him – and you may as well about ¾’s of the way through the story – but it did not spoil the ending. This is a book you will find fun to spend time with.

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