Saturday, June 4, 2022

Richard Zimler - Unholy Ghosts

Worldly, Jewish, at one time a standout on his legendary Greenwich Village basketball team, an American classical guitar teacher seeks a new life in Portugal after the death of so many friends. But what he calls the viral eclipse over sexuality pursues him even there, when Antonio, his most talented and beloved student, tests HIV-positive and threatens to give up on life at just twenty-four. Desperate to show the young man that he still has a future, “the Professor” arranges a car trip across Spain to Paris, hoping to be able to convince a leading virtuoso there to begin preparing his protege for a concert career. Antonio's estranged father, Miguel, a stonemason by trade, insists on coming along with them, and en route the three fall into a triangle of adventure, personal disclosure, violence, and at last a strange redemption.

Comment: I brought this book from the library. I have enjoyed the books by this author and although this is a different one from his usual genre, I still felt like trying it.

In this book, set in the early 90s, we follow a guitar teacher as he takes a great student of his on a road trip to France, to seek a better teacher for the young man. At the same time, the student's father decides to join them, for he wants to have a connection with his son before it's late. The student has recently discovered he HIV positive and at a time the disease spread through so many without any possibility of cure, this feels like it can be the last time he could have to do something. The problem is that the relationship between the three men is rather complicated and only seems to become more confusing as the days go by...

This is the second book written by the author, only recently published after years being kept aside for social and political reasons. The author includes a note at the beginning of the book, to explain why and how this book came to be, and thinking about the time he wrote it, it's understandable why the delay, for the subject - gay characters and AIDS - were still quite radical themes to publish about, in terms of fiction. I suppose I can agree because this book does touch plenty of content the majority at the time probably wouldn't have accepted...

The subject of this book is hard to think of but the author has a way with words and I could easily recognize here the same talent I saw in other books by him I read. I think in part some wording, some style choices were meant to shock, to force the reader to pay attention, but it is true the battle against AIDS and how so many people, whether they were gay or not, were infected and died before progress allowed, at least, a control on the symptoms and the effects of medication. I couldn't help but think about it, as with any other disease - now is cancer for instance- , stealing lives before it's time over random possibilities. We know there were risks by having unprotected sex, but how some resisted more than others...that is still actual.

Portuguese cover

While reading, I couldn't help but feeling, as it happened with one or two other protagonists in other books, how similar the protagonist was also so similar to the author himself: a teacher from the US comes to live in Porto and marvels/discusses the differences between cultures, while emotionally making connections with strangers and happens to be gay. In the introduction note, the references made are a little hard to ignore, so this is very clearly autobiographical.
Nevertheless, I must confess that while I liked reading about the subject - the theme is hard but the writing is both poetic and harsh - the fact the professor and the student and his father share a confusing link, are mixed up in a weird mess of sexual is indeed rather weird, especially thinking of today, how easily both father and son ended up wanting to have sex with the professor. I don't think this is a spoiler, for it happens rather soon in the book.

I think the professor is a very complex character, he is obviously self sabotaging, he is depressed, he is still dealing with a terrible break up and reading about his experiences in life, I can't help but wonder how much the author inspired this book on so many other gay men who suffered, who sadly (one can see now) went through promiscuity in search for emotional validation when the world told them they shouldn't feel what they did... In this aspect, how not to consider this work as something extraordinary and special, but I'm afraid some sections of the story feel a little too unlikely and perhaps part of the message was lost on the way.

I still liked reading this, is raw and heartfelt. However, the author could have imparted the same message or the same content using a different tactic, and in the end I feel some details were made more confusing than necessary.
Grade: 7/10

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