Pack Up the Moon
Thomas Allen Publishers, 2001
First published in Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Review by: Kerry Riley
Richard Teleky is a name that may not be familiar to many readers – a relative newcomer, this York University professor published his first novel, The Paris Years of Rosie Kamin, to wide acclaim, in 1999. Named one of the best books of that year by the Toronto Star, it also won the American Harold Ribalow Prize for best novel of 1999.
Pack Up The Moon is Teleky’s second novel. The story begins as Karl, an American who came to Toronto as a student in the late sixties to avoid the draft and stayed for nearly twenty five years, returns to that city in the early nineties for the funeral of an old friend and lover, Jay. During a post-funeral get-together, Karl learns, through the “friend of a friend,” that Charlotte Fleury, the intense and enigmatic young Catholic with the “Betty Davis eyes,” whom he considered his best friend during his early years in Toronto, but with whom he had subsequently lost touch, has been dead since 1975. She had, in fact, been murdered, not long after he had last seen her, in a tiny Florida motel cabin, a fate which Karl found difficult to reconcile with his memory of her.
Attempting to absorb this new information, Karl begins to realize just how deeply Charlotte has inhabited his psychic landscape, how present she had been for him. “All those years Charlotte had been alive in my mind,” he says, “with endless possibilities, growing older.” And with this realization, comes the understanding that the last twenty years of his life had been, if not based on, then at least coloured by a false premise. An archivist by profession, concerned with preserving truth, he becomes mildly obsessed with discovering the details of her death, and with reviewing his memories of her, trying to discern just what he had missed, what he had failed to understand, what he had, perhaps, failed to do. “If I remembered enough,” he wonders, “could I find the beginning of the end – the point at which Charlotte’s death became inevitable?”
As he sifts through his memories of Charlotte (surely one of the most intensely interesting characters to inhabit a page in recent memory) the reader becomes aware of small points of unease — nothing glaring, just little incidents which raise questions in the reader’s mind but which prompt little reaction from Karl at the time. One begins to wonder just how well Karl really knew Charlotte, how perceptive he had been about her motivations and what were certainly intense conflicts in her life. Examining an old photograph taken on an evening that he and Charlotte spent together, he realizes he has no memory of the occasion. Yet there is Charlotte wearing “a look of protective sadness,” that, in retrospect, disturbs Karl. “Something is wrong, and the camera sees it,” he thinks, gazing at the photo. Why, then, didn’t he?
A gay man in his early twenties, in exile from his own country, still a virgin, and with a naturally shy and retiring nature, Karl seemed to hold little hope of finding love for himself. He was, though, as he freely admits, “in love with friendship.” Did the role of friend, into which Karl had cast Charlotte, blind him to her true nature, her real situation?
Intertwined with unearthed memories of Charlotte are his remembrances of the recently deceased Jay, his former lover. Reading through a journal that Jay kept in his dying days, Karl discovers that there were many things about his old lover that he had not completely understood either, ways in which his memory was a false representation of the person. Karl understands that archives “hold not only the ‘information’ and the ‘texts’ collected in them, but also the assumptions and values behind the impulses to collect and preserve.” He comes to understand that the same can be said for the human mind – the memories held there a self-compiled archive of an individual experience, complete with biases, erroneous perceptions and choices of its own.
As the aging Karl continues to muse about his relationships with Jay and Charlotte, about love and friendship, and the rights and responsibilities conferred by each, he comes to believe that one, at least, of his assumptions about the past is true – that he had, in some way, failed both Charlotte and Jay, was guilty of sins of omission. He should, he sees now, have ignored his dying ex- lover’s admonition not to stay for the end, and he should also have tried harder to dissuade Charlotte from a marriage he knew would be disastrous. “I couldn’t have saved either of them,” he concedes, “but they deserved more from me.”
As alluded to earlier, Telecky has, in Charlotte Fleury, created a character who is not easily forgotten — a memorable beauty, whose beauty, Karl notes was “sad and wild and confusing” and “seemed to be of no use to her.” Elegant and sophisticated, yet strangely naive, rife with conflicts and contradictions, she is as elusive, haunted and haunting as the old movie heroines she so admires.
Although the story contains elements of a murder mystery, there is none of that genre’s flash and tawdry glamour. Telecky’s prose is restrained and low-key and his book a quiet, gentle meditation on friendship, love and memory. You will find, however, that once read, the ideas explored in the story will persistently assert themselves, in their gentle, low-key way, and that the characters, particularly Charlotte, will repeatedly spring to life in your thoughts. I can’t think of a higher endorsement for any book.