What to say about Alfred Buber, charming miscreant, buttoned-up attorney, purveyor of ethically questionable sexual services, a man reminiscent of both Henry Higgins and Humbert Humbert? The unreliable narrator is a tricky thing to pull off, but Schmahmann does it brilliantly, right from the opening words: "These are the chronicles of the starship Buber, noted bibliophile, late night television addict, keeper of sordid little secrets so appalling he dares not breathe a word of them to a soul." Buber gives the reader fair warning that he's a complex character, likable despite his proclivities, much like the charming Humbert. He either has or has not brought a young prostitute home from the east and he alludes to the his inevitable downfall early in the story, though the reader does not yet know its exact nature. After becoming strangely attached to young Nok, whom he "met" in the Star of Love Bar, after visiting her village, and sending her monthly wire transfers, does he send for her? Bring her to his ostentatious yet barren home as his wife? Teach her the joys of channel-surfing, shopping, air conditioning? Or does he not?
Alfred Buber is an odd duck. Brought up in Rhodesia by communist parents who send him to England to live with a relative, it is perhaps not surprising that he holds convoluted opinions on social class. He first approaches Nok as a "client," but relates to her as a tutor as well. He becomes a lawyer and spends all of his money buying a plot of land on which to build his dream house, a cold, imposing mansion that signals that Buber has arrived. Image is very important to him, which makes it unsurprising that he would fabricate trips to Europe for the benefit of his law partners, who must never know that his vacations are sex tourism jaunts to Asia, not rambles through Paris museums. There are so many ways to tell this complex story, and Buber attempts several openings before hitting his stride. After all, how he presents himself will dictate how the reader views his actions. This dipping into first one part of the story, then another, sets up perfectly the multifaceted character of Buber, a portrait that makes unfolding events seem plausible, even rational. But then, we see events and characters only through Buber's eyes. We have no idea what Nok thinks about all this. Is Buber a likable, flawed man through her eyes? Or is that only the cast Buber's own point of view has overlaid on the plot?
Schmahmann has created an unforgettable lens through which to examine questions of love, obsession, exploitation and obligation. Buber, like Henry Higgins, like Humbert Humbert, is a character for the ages.
Source disclosure: I received a galley courtesy of The Permanent Press.