A headstrong young journalist goes on the adventure of a lifetime, traveling through Europe to find the world's most enigmatic philosopher Bazlo Criminale is one of Europe's most legendary living men. A mysterious novelist and thinker known for his extreme elusiveness, the beloved Criminale is a cultural icon of the highest order. Seeking to find the man behind the myth, a London television-news station hires Francis Jay, an enterprising young reporter, to find Criminale. From Vienna to Budapest to the picturesque lakeshores of Italy, Jay journeys across the continent-and even briefly to Brazil-interviewing the man's biographer, his publisher, and his former lover, all of whom have their own interests at stake. Through literary award dinners and other examples of "culture as spectacle," Jay must navigate the chaotic world of post-Cold War Europe as he chases the specter of a literary legend.
I guess I shouldn't read so much into book blurbs. "With grace and wit its author deconstructs fifty years of European thought and history" was another promise that caught my eye. But, again, he didn't. The part I did find successful was the point that thinkers must make compromises with history, and the perspective on postmodernism as being a kind of cop-out - having seen the thinkers of the past fall into the trap of following the wrong ideas (communism/fascism), postmodernists don't support anything at all. Ironic detachment and scepticism don't help the world at all. Better to have an idea, even if flawed, a la Criminale, than not to have any ideas at all. Better to construct something wrong than merely to deconstruct and not offer anything new.
The writing style was fine, if a little wordy for my liking. I hate when characters are sitting on a train reviewing the story so far and speculating at length about the motives of other characters. It feels as if I am being prodded: "look, look, you probably missed it, but this is what you should be thinking about at this point!" I think if the story is well told, the reader can be trusted to realise what the important questions are. Another slight irritation was the author's tendency to shoehorn Oscar Wilde type bons mots into the narrative, e.g. "Writers are sometimes inclined to let their work do the talking; photographers have to let their talking do much of the work." Or: "There are no travellers now, only tourists. A traveller comes to see a reality that is there already. A tourist comes only to see a reality invented for him, in which he conspires." A lot of these little flourishes were quite clever, really. But they irritated me because they broke the narrative spell: they made me forget about the characters for a few seconds, look up from the page and remember that I was reading a book by a man called Malcolm Bradbury who was trying quite hard to sound clever.