Tesla: A Portrait With Masks by Vladimir Pi ˘ stalo; The Passenger Pigeon by Errol Fuller; and We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler
Nikola Tesla, the wizard of electrical invention who was eventually outdone by his cunning rival Thomas Edison, continues to be an object of fascination. His static-charged, mad-scientist reputation, short-circuited by calamities and business setbacks, makes him both a tragic and magical subject. In recent years, Tesla has been the focus of a 2003 opera, Constantine Koukias and Marianne Fisher’s Tesla — Lightning in His Hand , and he made a cameo in Thomas Pynchon’s
Against the Day , some of which is set at one of Tesla’s greatest accomplishments, the lighting of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. David Bowie plays the lanky, lightning-bathed scientist in The Prestige , Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film of rival magicians, and The Invention of Everything Else (2008), Samantha Hunt’s novel of science and fantasy, imagines the inventor’s last year, spent pursuing time travel in a New York tenement.
Vladimir Pištalo’s biographical novel tells Tesla’s story as one of spark and frustration, electrified by devils, furies, and fate. The author captures the magical realism of an era when seemingly impossible advancements — city lights! moving pictures! — came to pass. Tesla, the man who envisioned the X-ray; the AC induction motor (which today propels the sporty electric cars that bear his name); and wireless communication on a global, cost-free network, was a true visionary. In Tesla , the inventor’s eureka moments came in a blinding light that “spread from his forehead downward. ... he saw what he otherwise could only imagine.” Not all of his dreams were realized, often because of financial rather than scientific failures. Yet he made dramatic contributions to an applied science in its infancy. Pištalo portrays Tesla as a man of his times, operating against a backdrop of politics and personalities. Despite suffering from social anxiety, he boasted such friends and associates as Mark Twain, J.P. Morgan, and John Muir.
Tesla is a dreamy, uniquely imagined account that establishes its themes by emphasizing the inventor’s formative years in Eastern Europe. Born in 1856 to Serbian parents in what is now Croatia, in the mountainous border village of Smiljan, young Tesla is pressured to join the priesthood by his father, a priest himself and prone to “transformations.” He disapproves of his son’s educational pursuits. “This science you crave is nothing but vanity. Vanity and lusting after the wind!” the father declares. Meanwhile, the boy occasionally sees the world dissolve in “liquid fire,” feeling as if he’s “floating in light.” Tesla’s mother, whose own mother was blind, never had a childhood. She teaches him, when splitting firewood, not to “aim for where you’re looking, but where you want to strike” and advises that “the enemies of bees are swallows and hedgehogs.”
By the time Tesla immigrates to America in 1884, he has acquired practical experience from his jobs at a telegraph exchange in Budapest and at Edison’s fledgling company in France. He struggles in New York, living in tight quarters with an acquaintance and earning a pittance digging the ditches into which Edison’s cables will be laid. His off-duty world is one of working-class tenements, saloons, and street thugs. The desperate poverty he witnesses haunts him, even as he becomes successful and climbs into high society.
But Tesla isn’t much of a capitalist. When business turns cutthroat, his experience and enthusiasm work against him. In a race with Marconi to broadcast radio waves, Tesla doesn’t settle for just point-to-point transmission. He wants his radio to vibrate out to the entire world. He becomes something of a showman, playing to the public’s fascination with magic when selling his creations and their possibilities, filling stages with glowing objects and standing amidst showers of sparks. Edison counters with demonstrations of the dangers of alternating current, Tesla’s preferred form of electricity, that include electrocuting cats, dogs, goats, and an elephant. When asked about the waves of generated lightning he stands in, Tesla replies that he never tested on animals, only on himself.
Pištalo places the era’s relevant science and engineering as background for Tesla’s difficult genius. The inventor’s emphatic confidence, gained from discipline, takes on spiritual qualities — and Pištalo inserts more than a touch of the surreal. “In Nikola’s dream, intoxicating, stifling images kept flying back, like soot, like gold leaves, like musical notes.” The imagery in that dream is telling. Edison is a fox, and Tesla a pigeon. They go through a number of transmogrifications before Tesla the lion turns to rice in front of Edison the dragon, who, in response, becomes a rooster and greedily pecks up every bit. The masks referenced in the subtitle stand in for different sides of Tesla’s evolving personality. He suffers the childhood death of a brother, admires and emulates his father’s honesty but bears the scars of his disapproval, and is frustratingly attracted to a close confidant’s wife, Katharine Johnson, who, in turn, seems infatuated with him. The imagery is sharp. Roses, the symbol of devotion between Tesla and Katharine, “thunder” on the table between them; Katharine dreams of Tesla dressed only in light.
Translated from the original Serbian by Bogdan Rakic´ and John Jeffries, Tesla reads at a brisk pace, with exquisitely brief sentences. Letters, poems, and accounts of dreams are fitted into the flow, and the short chapters — all 127 of them — are concise accounts of lectures, encounters, and disappointments inflicted by business rivals. A mysterious fire destroys one lab; the city of Colorado Springs, where he has gone to gather lightning, turns against him; and the financing for his greatest project, the Wardenclyffe Tower on Long Island, designed to transmit electricity across the Atlantic, disintegrates. Tesla, something of an innocent early on, becomes suspicious that J.P. Morgan signed a business agreement with him just to give Edison time to counter.
Tesla becomes more eccentric as he ages, but his enthusiasm for innovation barely wanes. On his seventy-fifth birthday, he lectures reporters on his plans for improvements to his electric turbines, on the possibility of inserting his electrical pump into the human body, and on the power of fasting. On his eightieth, he continues to express his desire to contact life on other planets. As World War II breaks out, he offers to design a death ray that can wipe out an army at a distance of 200 miles. Equal parts Promethean and Quixotic, this embellished account of a life in applied imagination lights up as if by magic. It’s the only one of Pištalo’s 11 books of fiction to be translated into English. Maybe it’s time publishers started considering the others.