Xanadu, by the mysterious D.Z.C., is not a book for casual readers looking for the instant gratification offered by a simple plot punctuated with bursts of gunfire that lead the way to a quick and insipid conclusion. Instead, Xanadu is a complicated, lengthy, and humorous tale of adventure that must be read slowly and enjoyed at one’s leisure. Any reader who rushes through the text will miss the witty ironies that enhance many of the protagonist’s statements, a fact anticipated by the title. Xanadu is an imaginary place of marvelous beauty and magic. However, this tale does not take place in a poet’s dream. It takes place in Afghanistan, and Kublai Khan is nowhere to be found.
Nicolas Keszthelyi, a cynical Russian art-dealer, narrates the tale in first person and often speaks directly to the reader, his words tainted with dark humor. This point of view gives the story a personal feel. It reads as if Keszthelyi is sitting next to the reader in some seedy bar, telling the story between sips of strong brew served in a fractured glass. Neither the protagonist nor the other main characters are squeaky clean. In fact, all of them are rather sleazy, flawed misanthropes mainly concerned with their own personal goals. This might be too close to reality for some readers.
Keszthelyi travels to Afghanistan in hopes of making a killing by whisking ancient ivory carvings out of the country so they can be sold at a great profit. There he teams up with a motley crew bent on exhuming the carvings from their burial site in the floor of a remote copper mine. As one would expect, their plan goes awry. A mahjong aficionado controls access to the dig site. Therefore, Keszthelyi must find a way to convince, or coerce, Zhao Jianguo to allow them passage into the mine where the carvings were discovered. The team decides that the best way to procure his compliance is by conquering him in a mahjong tournament. Thus, much of the drama is concerned with luring Zhao into mahjong hell.
Nothing goes easy for the narrator’s crew. The odds are stacked against them. One has a drug problem. Another must survive chlorine gas poisoning, and another gets his hand crushed under a black-market auto engine. The members of the team inadvertently endanger each other more than do the police or the Russian mafia. Can Keszthelyi and his merry band of grave robbers mobilize the wherewithal to succeed? Will they stumble and fumble their way to success, or will they all end up in jail or worse? Remember, this is Afghanistan.
In Xanadu, the author rebels against the rigid, traditional definitions of genre. In true postmodern style, the novel includes elements of mystery, adventure, crime, history, comedy, intellectual repartee and the absurd, thus including something for everyone.
Xanadu is the second book that boasts Keszthelyi as the main character. It’s predecessor is People Like Us. However, this is not a problem. Xanadu can be read and enjoyed on its own. Perhaps, reading both would be the best bet for intellectual book lovers interested in quirky characters, dubious motives, and exotic settings.