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#70….The Alexandria Quartet….Balthazar

July 27, 2010

“‘We live’, writes Pursewarden somewhere, ‘lives based on selected fictions. Our view of reality is conditioned by our position in space and time–not by our personalities as we like to think. Thus every interpretation of reality is based upon a unique position. Two paces east or west and the whole picture is changed.'”

Just when you thought you got the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about Justine and her wacky crew of friends and ex-lovers in Justine, Durrell turns everything upside down in Balthazar, the second installment of his Alexandria Quartet. Just to see if you were paying attention.

Our depressed hermit friend Darley sends his copy of his memoirs of his days in Alexandria and his love affair with Justine (basically the manuscript of Justine) to his buddy Balthazar back in Alexandria. Balthazar shows up on the island not only with the manuscript full of commentary, but corrections. Apparently, boy did Darley have a whole bunch of things wrong. “A diary is the last place to go if you wish to seek the truth about a person. Nobody dares to make the final confession to themselves on paper: or at least, not about love,” Balthazar states. So everything Darley wrote about his memories of Justine are either wrong, skewed, or incomplete. By the end of Balthazar, even Darley is doubting his reliability as a narrator. And so was I, big time.

The magic of Balthazar is that Durrell makes discovering these inconsistencies and gaps in Darley’s story interesting. It’s like seeing a house painted a cool color, and then finding out the owners had to mix four different paints to get it. It adds dimension and layers to the essentially one-sided story we’re presented with in Justine. We learn, for example, that the secret agent Scobie is a cross dresser. We learn about Nessim’s reclusive family, and how Nessim got Justine to agree to marry him in the first place. We learn why Justine ever got started with Darley in the first place….and boy, does THAT revelation hit Darley hard.

There are always two sides to every story…all of us know that. Durrell touches on this several times during Justine. But what really captivated me about Balthazar is how futile, how subversive a search for truth can be. Do any of us ever have a chance of finding out what’s really true about anything? As humans, we cling to certain memories, block other things out, and color the way we remember things all the time. If you told the story of how you met your significant other to someone, and then had your significant other tell their side of the story, certain facts would be the same….but you’d have a whole other dimension to the story you were lacking before. Which one is true? Aren’t both true, even though both stories have different information? You can start to see how the search for pure truth has captivated generations of philosophers.

This was the point that blew me away about Balthazar. We’re tempted as readers to throw Justine in the trash and take Balthazar’s account as the ‘real’ story…but knowing what we now know about individual truth, can we do this? Durrell masterfully not only discredits Darley as a narrator…but at the same time discredits everyone else. We learn that we cannot rely on anyone’s individual chronicle as pure truth. Their stories fit together like pieces in a puzzle, but as stand-alone stories do not represent the whole truth.

As a disgusting side note, I got to experience the icky moment of seeing whoever owned this book before me writing the word “ME!” next to the sections where Pursewarden is described as picking his nose and taking his shoes off under the table in restaurant. Awesome. Excuse me while I go look for the Clorox wipes now.

Anyone looking for deep thoughts should check this one out. You really do have to read Justine first, though. Sorry.

Grade: A-

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