|THE MAP OF TIME
Translated by Nick Caistor
Released: 9 June 2011
I’m a big fan of fiction that uses actual historical figures or events as part of its fabric. Fiction like Caleb Carr’s The Alienist or Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club. So, I was excited when Felix Palma’s The Map of Time landed on my desk and I discovered that H.G. Wells and Joseph Merrick, a.k.a. The Elephant Man, were amongst its seemingly vast cast of characters. The Map of Time is the first of Palma’s novels to be translated into English.
As one reads, it soon becomes clear that The Map of Time is less of a conventional novel, and more a trilogy of interconnected stories, all of which have a number of things in common: they all feature to a lesser or greater degree the author H.G. Wells, and the fictional entrepreneur Gilliam Murray; they are all set in London, 1896; and they are all constructed around the central theme of time travel.
The first part of the novel concerns Andrew Harrington, a man on the verge of suicide, having spent eight years trying to come to terms with the death of his lover, the prostitute Marie Kelly, the last victim of Jack the Ripper. His cousin, sensing his intentions saves him from the fatal self-inflicted bullet, and introduces him to Gilliam Murray, proprietor of Murray’s Time Travel, in the hope that Murray can help Harrington travel back to 1888 and change the course of history. Unable to help, Murray directs the pair to the home of H.G. Wells, a man who recently shot to fame with the publication of his novel The Time Machine. Wells, as it turns out, has an exact replica of the very machine from his novel stashed in his attic – a working copy, no less – and agrees to help young Harrington out.
Part two tells us the story of Claire Haggerty and Tom Blunt, a pair of lovers who, it seems, are trapped in different periods of time. It is also the story of Murray and his time travel company, and begins to reveal something about the relationship that exists between Murray and Wells.
In the closing part of the book, a traveller from the far future summons Wells, Henry James and Bram Stoker to an old abandoned house with a dark history in the centre of London and tells them that their lives are in danger: a man from the future will, within the year, publish three novels under his own name. Those novels are The Invisible Man, The Turn of the Screw and Dracula. And, as Wells soon discovers, the only way this traveller will be able to get away with this is if the original authors are dead.
The novels gets off to a promising start. The Harrington section is concisely told. The language is beautiful, whether because of Palma’s original Spanish or Caistor’s translation – it’s an old-fashioned story told in an old-fashioned tone, by a narrator who has a tendency to break the fourth wall, which makes it almost like listening to one of Grandad’s old yarns.
Unfortunately, the rest of the book fails to live up to this excellent start. The story encapsulated in the middle section is interesting, and well-told, but somewhat overlong. Here, Grandad’s old yarn turns into that story he always tells when he’s in his cups, and everyone rolls their eyes, wishing for him to reach the point so they can talk about something more interesting. What is perhaps most disappointing, though, is that the third section seems totally unrelated to the first two, except that they share some characters and a plot device: namely time travel.
Here’s how it looks to me: Palma saw an interesting device in an early episode of Heroes (you’ll know it when you come across it, if you’ve seen the first season or two of the show), constructed a story around his own version of this device centred around the novelist H.G. Wells, introduced a couple of incidental characters and came up with a neatly-packaged, exciting story that ran about 150 pages. Then, in order to flesh out some of the incidental characters he produced a whopping 350 pages of backstory which had absolutely no bearing on the original story.
Which is not to say The Map of Time is a bad novel. It is, by no stretch of the imagination, a great novel, but it’s not bad. A bit on the long side, and could do with some trimming, but the first and last parts are worth the price of admission alone. Just don’t expect them to be the first and last parts of the same story. Forewarned, as they say, is forearmed.