A Theory of Everything

If someone were to ask me what Nino Ricci’s Governor General award-winning The Origin of Species (Doubleday Canada, 2008, 496 pages) is about, I would have to reply that it is about everything: from the smallest of minutiae to the grandest of theories. It is a book of voluptuous writing – a tour de force, as they say. It will make the reader look differently upon a grain of sand, the sun in the sky, and all in between.

This is a book that cannot be appreciated in its entirety with just one reading. While one can certainly sketch the book’s bones, it clearly is a text that needs to be looked at again and again in order to comprehend what Ricci is really after.

The protagonist is Alex Fratarcangeli, a young man fraught with all manner of personal and painful problems. He is a product of a southern Ontario Italian family, but he has chosen to expand both his territorial and intellectual landscape. When we first meet him, he is living and studying in Montreal, burdened by his ambition to write and complete a dissertation with a most unusual thesis: “finding a way to link evolutionary theory to theories of narrative.” This is his goal, but while clawing his way towards this, we must follow and witness the path he has been on: failed relationships, secrets, a brooding over the state of the world – until we finally come face to face with his life-changing trip to the Galapagos.

Before we can take the trip to the Galapagos with Alex, we have to get to know him. His angst is palpable, as we learn about his failure to commit to the women who have crossed his path. There is Liz, with whom Alex has just broken up when we first meet him. Liz is the companion he has held on to the longest and with whom he experiences some very traumatic episodes. Then there is Ingrid, the woman who will become significant at a later point. There is also Esther, a young woman suffering from an incurable disease, and Maria, the exotic Central American. With the latter, Alex has a platonic relationship that, in a sense, redeems his character flaws. As Alex leads the reader through this maze of somewhat peculiar relationships, we are aware that he is a man who is carrying around a festering and brewing dilemma. We learn that he sees a psychiatrist on a regular basis.

Ricci skilfully encourages the reader to turn the page in order to get to the bottom of this man, who seems to have been bestowed with equal amounts of vice and virtue. The author doles out tidbits that tantalize and we continue to look for answers, much as Alex himself does. All along, the same Alex who often seems confused in purpose, has a imaginary running conversation with Peter Gzowski of CBC radio fame. At one point he says, “It’s curious, isn’t it? You go along all your life, expecting some plan will show itself, then you find out there isn’t one. That it’s just one damn thing after another. I suppose it’s a little like evolution, when you think of it, Peter. Some things work, some don’t. Natural selection.”

When Alex gets to the Galapagos, we are ready to ingest and digest the meaning of the fictitious conversation above – fictitious in the sense that it did not take place with Peter, but it did take place: it was Alex talking to Alex.

The part of the story set in the Galapagos brings to mind Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and Martel’s Life of Pi. But Ricci’s account is deeper, more complex. As we follow Alex on this most unusual voyage of discovery, we too are on a voyage full of tempests and fears. We too have to ride out the storms with Alex and his two travel companions – who are among the most unsavoury and onerous characters one can imagine.

Amid Alex’s failed relationships and a traumatic and life-altering voyage to Darwin’s Galapagos, Ricci also finds time and space for political issues. Throughout the novel, Ricci takes us back to the eighties and Pierre Trudeau, the Quebec question, the war in El Salvador and Chernobyl, among other historical events.

Ricci’s Origin of Species is not a book that can be read lightly, and Ricci’s work is never an easy read – you do not go there to escape. Instead, you go there to plunge into the frail yet complicated and convoluted circumstances of life and realize when you come up gasping for air, humbled by the experience, that you will be a little more savvy having taken the risk as a reader.

Marisa De Franceschi is a writer and teacher from Windsor, Ontario. She is the author of Surface Tension and editor of Pillars of Lace, an anthology of Italian Canadian women writers.

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 15.

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