Tesla: A Portrait with Masks, a Novel

  • By Vladimir Pištalo; translated by Bogdan Rakić and John Jeffries
  • Graywolf Press
  • 384 pp.
  • Reviewed by Jessie Seigel
  • February 10, 2015

This biographical story captures the famed inventor's spirit and makes his life, fears, and struggles come alive.

Tesla: A Portrait with Masks, a Novel

If you have heard the name Nikola Tesla, you probably associate it with the eponymous electric automobile or, perhaps, with Tesla’s development of the alternating current now used for most of the world’s electric power distribution. Possibly, you have heard of his work creating artificial lightning, the X-ray gun, and the first phosphorescent photographs, or his historic role in the “war of the currents” (direct vs. alternating) between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.

These essential facts and more have been recited and analyzed in respected biographies, such as John O’Neill’s Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla and Margaret Cheney’s Tesla: Man Out of Time. What, then, may be added by a biographical novel that cannot be imparted by straight biography? The answer, I think, is that fiction often can take one to the heart of a matter in a way that narration of fact and analysis of events alone do not.

Whereas biographies analyze and speculate as to the nature and motivations of the man, his competitors, his patrons, and his friends, Vladimir Pištalo’s Tesla: A Portrait with Masks brings the full spirit of Tesla and his times to life, making them almost palpable.

Tesla, a Serbian-American, was born and raised in Croatia when it was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and he made his way to America as an engineer. He was a prolific inventor and far ahead of his time. (The first radar system and robots were among his many inventions.)

However, Tesla also had hallucinatory visions and arrived at scientific breakthroughs during possibly epileptic episodes. He tried to develop teleportation and theorized that memories and thoughts could be projected, like in a movie. His eccentric genius brought him attention, but his stubborn naiveté in business dealings often lost him the financial backing needed to bring his concepts to fruition.

Tesla was phobic and prone to obsessive-compulsive behaviors, with fears of dirt and disease and aversions to fat women, earrings, and pearls. He had no romantic involvements with women or men, but claimed that science and invention comprised his all-encompassing passion. Tesla had more than one nervous breakdown following traumatic life events, and he was haunted by the death of his older, admired brother, who died when Tesla himself was still a young child.

Pištalo begins his novel with Tesla’s early life and the thinking that shaped him: the musings of his father, a Serbian Orthodox priest (“What is this world? What is the purpose of existence? What is the what?”), and the folk wisdom of his mother (“Don’t aim for where you’re looking, but where you want to strike”). Each had a strong influence on Tesla’s mystical fascination with science.

Pištalo does not simply discuss whether Tesla’s childhood symptoms amounted to epilepsy. He takes us there in poetic terms: “He closed his eyes, and light engulfed him. The entire world dissolved in liquid fire. ‘I’m disappearing. I’m getting absorbed by light,’ the boy whispered…A golden visor falls over my eyes while they’re open. There’s a flash and I’m floating in light.” It is during such episodes in adulthood that Tesla’s most important scientific epiphanies come to him.

Pištalo’s description of an early Tesla hallucination borders on magical realism: “The chapel was right in the middle of Nikola’s room. The open casket was next to his bed. His brother was lying in the casket. His face was the color of tapers. He looked real, and seven-year-old Nikola stretched his arm to pat him on the forehead. His hand went through Dane’s face, but the face did not disappear. Nikola started to cry. ‘Let me go,’ he whispered into his brother’s ear. Dane refused to go away. ‘Please let me go.’”

However, Pištalo does not let his poetic impulse overwhelm his prose, which adeptly turns pithy and ironic, especially when setting a scene or addressing the vagaries and hypocrisies of American life and commerce. For example, he sums up John Jacob Astor, Tesla’s friend and patron, in one sentence: “His smile was as cold as soup in an orphanage.” And when describing the post-World War I New York that Tesla must navigate, Pištalo writes: “The Youth of Europe were dead. ‘That’s boring.’ ‘Let’s dance.’”

Whether Gospić, Prague, New York, or Chicago, Pištalo nimbly captures location and era in a few short sentences of dialogue or with juxtaposed references to public figures and nonentities on the street.

If the novel has any flaw, it is that Pištalo tends to reach more for breadth than depth. Each of the 127 chapters has the feel of a snapshot in time. Approximately three-quarters into the story, the presentations of character and motivation in those snapshots become repetitive where they should deepen. But perhaps this is inevitable for any novel that attempts to stay faithful to life since life usually has its ups and downs without a climax in the fictional sense. And Tesla: A Portrait with Masks is nothing if not faithful to the spirit of Tesla’s life.

(Note: In 2008, Tesla: A Portrait with Masks, in its original language, won the most prestigious literary award in Serbia: the NIN award for best novel.)

Jessie Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review. Her fiction has appeared in Ontario Review, Gargoyle, and the anthology Electric Grace. She also writes on writing at the Adventurous Writer.

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