- Mad Travelers
304 Pages; Print, $25.99
For more than two decades straddling the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, victims of an epidemic that gripped Europe were considered either epileptics or hysterics and these patients were often male. The presumed Patient Zero of this outbreak was Jean-Albert Dadas, a French gasfitter who frequently left his home and job without explanation to undertake vast, sometimes perilous journeys. He had been running away from home since age 12 but remembered little of his adventures, including one that culminated in his imprisonment in Siberia. He often lost all identifying documents while traveling on foot, as well as all sense of his identity. But under hypnosis he could recall lost days and even years, which saw him become a beggar and survive an attack by dogs.
Following publication of Dadas' case by a medical student, similar reports of hapless, amnesiac travelers emerged from Germany, Italy, and even Russia. Their affliction was thought to be a reaction to their working-class existences during rapid industrialization; affecting a restless, fugue state was the only means of escaping crushing circumstances. In 1909, doctors convened in Nantes, France to deal with the phenomena, but the illness dissipated just as scientists sought to describe it. The timing was likely fortunate, for five years later, with the start of the Great War, those stricken with the disease would have found all borders closed to them.
The compulsions of Dadas and others have been codified under several names, but the one that has stuck is mad traveler. Contemporary cases are rare, though not unheard of. In Margot Singer's prescient and elegant debut novel Underground Fugue, an émigré Persian physician, Javad Asghari, searches for physical manifestations of fugue-like illnesses in the brain, even as he fails to recognize the symptoms in his own mind and others. Unlike one of his aphasic, amnesiac patients who becomes known as the Piano Man, Javad confines his wanderings to twenty-first century London, just as his new neighbor, Esther, finds herself doing in moments of crisis. Esther returned from the US to her childhood home to care for her dying mother, Lonia, who escaped the Holocaust at a cost she has yet to reconcile with. The youngest in this quartet contemplating loss and responsibility is Javad's son, Amir, whose appetite for urban exploration is especially problematic in an age of terrorism and racial profiling.
The emergence of the Piano Man, a resolutely silent 20-year-old who seemingly washed ashore in Kent in 2005, is one real-life impetus for the novel's events. The tabloids quickly seized upon his appearance and clues poured in from Norway to the Czech Republic. But there is another historic occasion for this work: the July 7 suicide bombings of a London bus and the underground, in which 52 people died and 700 were injured. Singer could be arguing that there's little difference between being trapped under the spell of a radical movement and being numbed by personal trials, or national tragedies such as 9/11. "A fugue is a fugue is a fugue," Javad thinks to himself "nonsensically" early in the novel. But that is neither the novel's rationale nor its moral argument. Singer is instead engaged in an investigation of survivor's guilt, a precipitating symptom before the ruminations and wanderings of a fugue state set in.
To report all the regrets and unmet responsibilities each character confronts would give away much of the story's literary pleasures. Among them is Esther, a secular Jew obviously named for a savior of her people. Running from a marriage crumbling under the weight of her son's death, she has no more people to defend. The setting of Lonia's flashbacks to eluding the Nazis resonates not only with today's refugee crisis, but also to the novel's love story and another character's obsessions. Amir's name has a convenient linguistic history in not only Persian but also Hebrew. Although this history is not explicit in the novel, it is put to subtle use through the depiction of...