Review: Tesla: A Portrait with Masks by Vladimir Pištalo A Portrait with Masks by Vladimir Pištalo (Graywolf Press, 384 pages)

Pištalo, a well-known Serbian writer and award-winner, has written one of the most unclassifiable novels I've read in a long time. Tesla, the first of his works to be translated into English, is a fictional approach to the historical and biographical background of the real-life scientist and inventor. But wait (I hear you saying), is it a biography? Is it literary nonfiction? Well, no, and no, not really (and this is why it's so tantalizing).

Basically, Pištalo takes Nikola Tesla's life, including his childhood and young-adulthood in Serbia, his eventual move to America, and his widespread fame, and weaves it with Nikola's "thoughts," or inner life. At times, the effect reminds one of stream-of-consciousness novels. While the story is told from an omniscient narrative perspective, it is only focalized through Tesla, revealing, for instance, the brilliant man's intense "flashes" that lead to some of his most stunning breakthroughs in electricity distribution research. In one instance, we're told that "[t]he whole world quivered, and Tesla with it. And yet, instead of quietly falling into sync with each other, these quivers clashed...The murmur of the universe, both distant and close, sounded like g-a-aaa-arbl-ed words" (94). Such detailed descriptions of intangible experiences are the foundation upon which this "portrait with masks" is built.

At other times, we're told that Tesla "licks" people's souls, or that he can feel the Earth's vibrations. And while no one except Tesla could experience what Tesla experienced, Pištalo has imagined what he might have said, based on the inventor's copious correspondence and papers. Tesla did indeed have a unique voice, and his knowledge of several languages most likely gave him a fluency that monolinguists lack.

It probably helped that I read a "straight-up" biography of the inventor several years ago (Tesla: Man Out of Time by Margaret Chaney), but I had forgotten many of the details of his life. However, having a baseline knowledge of Tesla's life and work allowed me to more deeply appreciate Pištalo's efforts to help us understand a brilliant, troubled, lonely man who wasn't appreciated in his day, mainly because he refused to "sell out." Only infrequently would he approach wealthy investors for money; mostly, he focused on his experiments with alternating currents, wireless lighting, and many other things we take for granted today. His friends included Mark Twain, Robert Underwood Johnson, architect Stanford White, and many other well-known artists and members of the elite, some of whom understood that Tesla was technically living in their world, but was actually hovering between theirs and another, unfathomable one. Friends and other interested guests would stare in wonder around his labs, in which he conducted experiments with mechanical oscillators/generators, electrical discharge tubes, and early X-rays.

Tesla is often called a "visionary," and he actually was. He saw decades into the future, and brought together his technical knowledge and quirky creativity (as geniuses often do) to imagine a world re-shaped by beneficial technology. Often, his attempts to better the human race ran up against the narrow commercial and financial goals of other inventors and their backers. And yet, Tesla's name endures, and we're only recently understanding just how important his work was to our ongoing exploration of our planet and our universe.

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