Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Passarola Rising Passarola Rising: Books: Azhar Abidi: "Pakistani-Australian author Abidi's American debut charts a marvelous fictional journey by a pair of real 18th-century Brazilian brothers. Alexandre Lourenço recounts his daring adventures with his older brother, the inventor Bartolomeu, aboard their wildly innovative airship, the Passarola, or "great bird." After finding rich patrons in Lisbon to fund Bartolomeu's flight obsession, they make their successful maiden voyage on the vacuum-pumped Passarola in 1731 in the presence of His Majesty João V. However, the brothers run afoul of Cardinal Conti's Inquisition and flee to France, where they are championed by the Enlightenment regime of Louis XV, as long as their airship can serve his purposes. Commissioned by the Académie des Sciences to measure distances to the polar circle, the brothers set out on a harrowing trek into the extreme northern regions, where Alex is beset by hallucinations of a splendid phantom city, and they must turn back. They cannot offer indisputable proof of what they saw during their exploration, so, disheartened they separate—Alex back to Brazil, to lead a mediocre existence, and Bartolomeu off to incredible adventures in India and beyond. Inspired by the historical record, Abidi's narrative offers a wonderfully fanciful realization of Bartolomeu's aeronautical ambitions.

Abidi's imagination takes flight with this whimsical historical fable, but a thoughtful message lies at its heart. The launch of the airship Passarola from atop a castle in Lisbon in 1731 begins the grand adventures of Bartolomeu Lourenco and his younger brother, Alexandre, through Enlightenment-era Europe. King Joao V hails them as heroes who will make Portugal a world leader in exploration, but their efforts are threatened by the Inquisition, which deems their airborne voyages a heresy. The pair flies across the continent on scientific and political missions, traveling from Louis XV's Versailles to Georgian England to the frozen North and back again. One entertaining episode involves the reluctant rescue of Poland's embattled king Stanislaus, who sees no honor in exile. The historical Bartolomeu was an early aviation pioneer, and Abidi's creative interpretation of his times enhances the underlying tale. The many eccentric, colorful characters are delightful, yet the novel also poses serious questions about how best to measure the value of one's life."

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