In the Company of Angels (Bloomsbury, 2010) Book Review
Kennedy’s timely new novel gives us an inside look at what it means to be a survivor of torture. Despite being an ultimately life affirming novel—a poignant and very moving love story actually— In the Company of Angels can be a difficult read at times, especially for the hypersensitive, interspersed as it is with flashbacks describing the main protagonist, Bernardo Greene, being tortured physically and mentally in “the place of screaming.” Where “Nardo could hear the cartilage that held arm to shoulder creak and pop.” Kennedy pulls no punches when it comes to the torture scenes, but this is not a book wallowing in its own suffering. Angels is a tough but often tender story that brings together a pair of damaged human beings Michela Ibsen and “Nardo” Greene, along with a few other characters trying to keep a grip on life and repair what chance or destiny or fortune or providence has done to them.
In the Company of Angels is set in Denmark. The first four chapters reveal Nardo trying to adjust to his new life in Copenhagen, where he is being treated by a psychiatrist at the Torture Rehabilitation Center, a place Kennedy knows well, having served as a translator at the International Research Council for Torture Victims in Copenhagen. Kennedy also edited their psychiatric handbook of treatment for the tortured. In essays and stories written prior to the novel, he detailed much of what he saw in his free-lance work for the council. Out of this knowledge he created a story that is almost overwhelmingly powerful, always gripping, totally authentic.
Within a few pages we learn how Nardo barely survived his Chilean captors and that it is touch and go as to whether the damage is too deep and permanent for him to ever return from what is, in effect, a psychological abyss. By chapter five we meet Michela Ibsen, a young Danish woman, who is dealing with her aging and ill parents. Michela has also been psychologically and physically damaged, barely managing to survive a horrific marriage to a man who, in the course of the book, continually stalks her. The drama between Michela and Nardo plays out against the long yellow nights of mid-summer, where Nardo, caught between his new country’s humanism and its racism, its political and social schizophrenia, seeks to find the quiet, calm life which was promised him by two angels who kept him company at the depth of his agony in his cell in Chile. Pretending that he is talking about someone else, Nardo tells Michela about a man he knew in Chile who had been severely tortured:
He was taken from his family, his wife, his little boy, who were themselves imprisoned in a place they did not survive. They joined the desaparecido, the ones who disappeared. … He was held in a dark windowless cell and visited daily by his keepers. They came at varying times, unpredictable. No moment was safe from their intrusion. At any time the door might burst open and their boots surround him where he lay on the concrete floor.
Nardo further relates how this victim was held for months in a filthy cell, where (in a not so subtle reference to recent American policies) “his captors employed upon him the skills they had been taught by their neighbors to the north”:
Isolate a man … Deprive him of sleep, of books, of light, of human company, bind his hands behind his back and plunge his head into a tank of water afloat with excrement, and bludgeon his kidneys until he opens his mouth to scream with the pain. Tell him daily, nightly, at all hours wake him, to tell him he is nothing … not even a man, not a human being … Do these things and you will kill his spirit.
In an opening scene of the book Frog Eyes, one of his torturers, says:
Even if you live to go out and tell this, Nardo, no one will believe you. Do you think they will? No one will … and when you tell only the tiniest little portion, why then they will be inclined to think, after all, perhaps there was a reason for this, perhaps the police sometimes need to employ certain means and measures. … And he removed the cigar from his lips and smiled, and Nardo began to scream even before the glowing tip pressed against his nipple.
Later, the angels visit the tortured man in his cell: “Yes, angels, Real angels. With feathered wings, with glories, long-haired, in radiant array.” They apologize for what has happened to him. They take him out, where he can feel the warm summer sunlight, smell the freshness of the grass, see the blue sky and white clouds. He feels calm for a moment. Feels peaceful. Then he is back inside his cell, with the angels promising him he will survive. He will experience love and beauty again.
But love and beauty seem far away after Nardo is finally released and makes his way to Europe, where he hopes Copenhagen might prove to be the haven he has been seeking. The city doesn’t exactly welcome him with open arms, a foreigner who barely speaks Danish. Because of his dark skin and thick accent he is occasionally the butt of jokes and/or the recipient of threats from racist Danes. In Nardo’s mind there is danger and threats and hatred everywhere he goes.
In one scene he is wandering through an outdoor festival when a hard, driving rain starts falling. He seeks protection under a canvas tarp where others have gathered. Nardo asks a woman next to him if he might move her cooler aside to give himself more room. The woman is fine with the idea. In fact she moves the cooler herself. But a young tough standing close by has a better idea. “There is of course also another possibility. You could go find somewhere else to stand,” he says. Nardo’s heart sinks. A wave of fear washes through him. He tries to reason with the man, telling him, “I meant no disrespect.” The man says, “What language is that you’re trying to speak? …Why don’t you just vanish, Pedro?” The woman tries to stick up for Nardo, but the belligerent man won’t have it, telling Nardo “… to close the asshole” in his face. If he doesn’t want to close it, mister tough guy will close it for him. The woman angrily asks the man, “Why are you so interested in assholes?” An explosion of violence is coming. Which Nardo diffuses by stepping out from under the shelter back into the rain, eventually making his way back to his lonely apartment. The loneliness and pain and impotent rage Nardo carries with him wherever he goes is in some measure mitigated when he finally meets Michela Ibsen and learns of her own suffering.
The fictional Bernardo Greene in Kennedy’s novel is a teacher who was arrested by Pinochet’s henchmen for teaching the poetry of Domingo Gomez Rojas. Rojas was a political activist. He and his fellow activist Pablo Neruda were champions of the poor. Rojas was tortured to death at age 21. It is a notable coincidence that Professor Raymond Craibe of Cornell University, who is translating Rojas’ poetry, read Kennedy’s manuscript and contacted him. Professor Craibe helped expand Kennedy’s personal knowledge about Rojas. “This is yet another illumination,” Kennedy wrote later, “of the force and longevity of words, of powerful and timeless thoughts that stand against repression”—echoes of Byron’s Don Juan saying that a small drop of ink makes thousands, perhaps millions think, forming a link of ages, words that survive the man “his tomb, and all that’s his.” “I will never forget Nardo,” a woman who read a review copy of the book wrote. “He will always have a special place in my heart.” Yes, Nardo is unforgettable. As is the entire novel.
Bernardo Greene’s experience comes out of a political and social milieu that is unfortunately pervasive and well known to our American world, especially since the exposures of prison abuses in Iraq and elsewhere authorized by those whose thin veneer of humanity proved no match for their fear and hatred of— The Other. Kennedy’s Angels draws on Chile’s all-too shameful history under Pinochet. The comparisons we make today to infamous Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo make this reviewer believe that the writer of this chilling tale is to some extent clairvoyant, or perhaps a bit of a prophet.
More than a hundred years ago, Joseph Conrad warned us about men like Pinochet and those of our own times swaggering and rattling their sabers and calling for war: the brute force that preys on the weakness of others, the aggravated murder on a great scale, and “men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.” The varied and violent images threading here and there throughout In the Company of Angels describe the horror and the darkness Conrad evokes. But it’s not all darkness for Kennedy. The two main characters that suffer most, Nardo and Michela, create a lovely light, a swelling counterpoint that keeps the reader turning the pages and pulling for them—and perhaps eventually growing to love them in the way their compassionate author obviously does. Quoting Alexander Pope, Kennedy gives us a thematic epigraph to Part IV that captures the connection between Bernardo and Michela when it says: “Act well your part, there the honor lies.” And one might add also—your redemption.
In the Company of Angels is that rare phenomenon in literature: a genuine masterpiece. At the peak of his considerable powers, Kennedy has written us a spellbinding tale—written it at white heat, a work suffused with wisdom and love of humanity and uncanny, uncompromising insights into what makes our species tick: What makes us good. What makes us evil. And what makes us need each other as desperately as ever.
Duff Brenna is a former AWP Best Novel winner, and the recipient of an NEA Fellowship. His third novel, Too Cool, was a New York Times Noteworthy Book. His fourth novel, The Altar of the Body, won the Book Editor’s Favorite Book of the Year Award given by South Florida Sun-Sentinel. He is Professor Emeritus at Cal-State San Marcos.