Tesla: A Por­trait With Masks by Vladimir Pi ˘ stalo; The Pas­sen­ger Pi­geon by Er­rol Fuller; and We Are Pi­rates by Daniel Han­dler

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Bill Kohlhaase

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.

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