I am flummoxed, mystified, mildly frustrated after finishing Nicolas Dickner’s Nikolski. This is exactly how I felt after reading Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and I don’t really like the feeling – like I’m missing something the rest of the world can see. But I also can’t escape the feeling that Dickner lead me around like a pony with a carrot dangling in front of its mouth until he got bored and unceremoniously dropped it into some unretrievable hole.
Nikolski is supposedly the story of of 3 characters:
1. An unnamed bookseller at a second hand bookstore whose mandala is a broken mariner’s compass which, rather than pointing to magnetic North, points towards Nikolski – the remote town where his father died;
2. A young woman who for no clear reason runs away from her only surviving parent and never returns, who is determined to follow in the path of her ancestors and become a pirate; and
3. A young man who was raised in a trailer, who becomes an archeological student obsessed with the study of human garbage, but then has a son and apparently does nothing afterwards.
Essentially, not much happens in the 296 pages of the novel. (*SPOILER ALERT*)
The bookseller’s mother dies and he packs up her belongings, he retrieves his compass, meets character #2 for an evening before she disappears mysteriously, and then quits his job to go travelling. The woman’s grandfather dies, she runs away from home, gets a job at a fish store across the street from character #3, goes dumpster diving, becomes a hacker, narrowly escapes being caught for hacking, steals a travel book from the bookseller, and goes to the Dominican Republic. Trailer park boy studies, gets into school in Montreal, leaves mother never to be heard from again, lives in the house of the owner of the fish-store, studies the archeology of garbage, meets a girl, finds out he has a son, moves to Venezuela, moves back with his son, and goes to buy some books from character #1. You don’t even get to find out if the mother of his child is injured/drowned following massive flooding that he and his son escape — it’s just left hanging.
I could describe the plot in more detail, but then you would have nothing but quasi-philosophical filler to read when you pick it up. The author keeps leading you to what feels like it must be a mystical and revelatory meeting as all there stories interconnect – all it amounts to is an overindulgence of rum, a rejected job offer, and a piece of tape for a ripped book.
Paradoxically, I enjoyed it until I got about three-quarter of the way through. It was only then that I started realizing that nothing had happened, and fearfully began looking at the number of pages left only to realize that the author was not likely to be forthcoming at that point. The book is well written, clever, and ties all sorts of tiny elements together. I also enjoyed the characters. But at the end of the day, there were far too many question marks for my liking – I’ve never been a fan of the cliffhanger.