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Fiction Historical

Fabrizio's Return

by (author) Mark Frutkin

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Nov 2006
Historical, 21st Century, Magical Realism
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Nov 2006
    List Price

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A brilliant novel packed with delights: grand romance, alchemical potions, violins to make you weep, commedia dell’arte theatre, reappearing comets, rambling skeletons and cracks in time.

It is 1682 in Cremona, Italy. With his manservant, an insolent dwarf named Omero, Fabrizio Cambiati, a priest, climbs the town clocktower to await the return of a comet that is said to reappear in the skies every 76 years. He has a new invention called a telescope with which to scour the night. As they await the comet, he scopes the town below and sees the commedia dell’arte players setting up in the town square and a Jesuit arriving in a carriage. We later learn that the Jesuit is Michele Archenti, a Devil’s Advocate sent from Rome to investigate the candidacy for sainthood of this same Fabrizio Cambiati – 76 years later!

The novel then begins again, this time in 1758 when Archenti settles himself in the town to assume his investigations. It is his job to find the flaws in Fabrizio’s character. In this attempt, he interviews a number of citizens, including an old duchess who holds a secret about Fabrizio’s life that would ruin the reputation of this priest, who was both a hidden alchemist and healer. The play held in the town square connects the two time periods by reflecting the goings-on in the wider world. We meet the players, as well as the duke, his beautiful daughter, a happy madman roaming the countryside with a skeleton on his back, and a hunchback who lives with his mastiff in a labyrinthine palace that is, like imagination itself, continually mutating.

With enormous assurance and a wonderful affection for his characters, Mark Frutkin has woven a miraculous tale that explores the ambiguous nature of reality and on every page packs joy into the reading.

About the author

Mark Frutkin has published two previous volumes of poetry, Acts of Light and The Alchemy of Clouds. The Governor General's Award nominee has also published six novels, including Slow Lightning, The Lion of Venice, Atmospheres Apollinaire, and Invading Tibet. His newest work is Iron Mountain (Fall 21). His work has appeared in the United States, England, Holland, and India, as well as Canada. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario.

Mark Frutkin's profile page


  • Short-listed, Sunburst Award
  • Winner, Trillium Book Award

Excerpt: Fabrizio's Return (by (author) Mark Frutkin)

the ­tower

26 August 1682 / Cremona, ­Italy

“Omero, awake!”

Towards the east, Mercury, Saturn, Jupiter and Mars climbed one by one from the horizon, forming a straight line across the sky. The moon was not yet half full and Orion the Hunter came leaping over the walls of the city, the three stars of his belt throwing spears of light. Padre Fabrizio Cambiati leaned over the parapet high atop the tower to see the clock on the tower’s face. He read it upside down – 4:45 ­a.m.

And then he saw what he had been waiting for. The comet. Out the corner of his eye – almost behind him. He ­turned.

“Omero, awake!”

A small man with an enormous head which barely reached as high as the priest’s elbow, Omero clambered to his feet and stumbled to the parapet, his mouth hanging open in awe. “Dio mio,” he breathed as he cringed in fear of being doused with the comet’s ethereal vapours. “I see the face of the ­goat-­footed one! Save me, Don Fabrizio!”

“Calm yourself.”

Low on the horizon, the head of the comet shone silvery white, its tail a haze of glowing feathers, as if someone had set fire to a dove and tossed it over the city ­wall.

Together they watched and wondered as the comet coursed up and across the heavens – a ­slow-­moving acolyte, lit taper in hand, passing down a row of candles, lighting them one by one. The light of a great comet would nor­mally have weakened the brilliance of the stars, but this was not a normal comet. Far from it. The comet ignited the firmament. It refreshed the constellations, brightening the stars as it went, irradiating the hard diamonds of Orion’s belt, the glints from the surface of the water in the Water Bearer’s bucket, the shards of light in the eyes of the Lion, the sparks from the hooves of the Bull, from the horns of the ­Ram.

Late that afternoon, the priest and his manservant had begun their ascent of the torrazzo that stood on the main square of Cremona, the tallest tower in a city of a hundred ­towers.

Omero, who had been sleeping at the tower’s entrance while he waited for the priest, had struggled to his feet as his master arrived out of breath. Fabrizio Cambiati’s rich hair, as black and shiny as if it had been dipped in ink, was combed straight back. Oddly, his brown eyes, set in a face of weathered skin, didn’t seem to match – one was happy, the other sad. With his black cassock to his ankles, Cambiati looked taller than he actually was. While he could not be called handsome, when he smiled he displayed a warmth that made him appear more youthful than his middling years would ­warrant.

The priest glanced back the way he had come. “I have been all afternoon with a patient. Amazing, the efficacy of castor beans and ground senna pods in dealing with a serious blockage. Come quickly now, Omero.” Fabrizio stepped into the shadows. “I believe his wife was about to thrust a basket of bread and cheese upon me as payment–a gift she can hardly afford to deny her family. I saw her coming after me down the street. Hurry.”

They mounted the worn stone stairs within the tower, the staircase turning ninety degrees at each ­corner.

Omero lugged a basket of food. Chunks of ham, a fresh loaf of bread, Nebbiolo grapes, a brick of hard white cheese, a bottle of lively red wine and a green melon the size of a man’s head. The servant stopped often to catch his breath, putting the basket down at his feet, leaning against the cool brick ­wall.

Fabrizio carried a sheaf of papers in one hand, and in the other a long, thin object wrapped in ­cloth.

“Come a little more quickly, Omero. At this pace, she will catch us with ease.” The priest glanced back down the stairs, turned and started to climb again, but noticed a window cut in the wall. “No, wait.” He looked out the window, scanning the piazza below. A number of stone buildings surrounded the rectangular square – the tower in which they stood, the massive cathedral next to it, an ­eight-­sided baptistery at the far end, the town hall across from the tower, a small ­fortress-­like armoury next to that and a row of small shops at the other end, including a baker’s and the workshop of Niccolò the violinmaker. A few people conversed in the piazza but there was no sign of the wife of his ­patient.

They climbed again and soon Omero was puffing. “It’s heavy, this basket.”

“If you hadn’t insisted on that huge melon, and the largest bottle of wine you could find, it would be easier. You have only yourself to blame.”

Omero grumbled, and climbed ever more slowly. He halted, thinking to steal a rest by making conversation. “Why are we climbing this tower? This day’s too hot for climbing.”

“You know perfectly well. I told you yesterday. Do you not remember?”

“I wasn’t listening.”

Fabrizio sighed. Omero stared at him. The priest’s eyes were watering, as they always did, day and night. “What guarantee do I have, Omero, if I waste my breath telling you again, that you will listen this time?”

“You are indeed a cruel master. Can we not stop here and eat?”

“No. Cease your whining. We must mount to the highest point for the best view.”

“If you could take a turn with the basket . . .”

“All right. Give it to me.” Don Fabrizio took the basket from him. “First you fill it to the brim, then you get me to carry it. Here, take the sky maps.” Before lifting the basket, he placed the long object on top of the ­foodstuffs.

They trudged upward through the tower, its walls and ceiling of ­reddish-­brown ­brickwork.

“Well, are you going to tell me what we are going to see, or am I to remain in ignorance for this entire . . . ascension?” He said the last word with his finger pointing in the air, as if he had just discovered something ­new.

“Yes, yes. We are going to look upon a comet high in the heavens. Rodolfo told me there would be a great comet coming tonight. Do you recall him? I saved his life, remember? An altogether strange fellow – people call him the Man of the Reeds.” The priest paused. “Are you even listening?”

“What’s that? Oh, I was thinking – do you suppose we could stop by the taverna later, after we are done with all this?”

Fabrizio halted and stared at his servant. “Usually a capacious forehead is a sign of intelligence . . .” The priest continued, “We will view the comet through this instrument called a telescopio. With it we will bring the stars close to earth. The Englishman, the scientist of the heavens who was here last year, recently sent it to me as a gift.”

“I remember him well. The two of you spent many a night talking of mad things about which I know nothing.” Omero gave him a blank look. “Tell me, which is it that moves through the tube – the distant object or the eye itself?”

Fabrizio laughed. “That is a question I cannot fully answer. While I am sure that neither eye nor object moves through the tube, my understanding of the science involved is severely limited. I know there are mirrors inside, and somehow . . . but come, look.”

The priest paused and, with care, placed the telescope on a wide, ­waist-­high stone ledge before a window. He unfolded the indigo cloth and revealed an instrument about three feet long, constructed of pearwood and bearing three rings of ­brass.

It looked to Omero like a musical instrument – a pipe or woodwind. He stared at it, and as he did so it seemed that a ray of sunlight shot through the nearby window and sparked off the middle brass ring. He imagined the object filled with stars and tiny comets bouncing off the interior walls of the tube. He wondered it did not explode before his ­eyes.

Editorial Reviews

“Frutkin writes like a fresco sprung to life. You can feel the warmth of the sirocco, the wind that carries fine sand from the Sahara; smell the musty parchment of Cambiati’s secret library; and taste the bitter elixirs peddled by the traveling troupe in the town’s piazza.”
TIME (Canada)

“Mark Frutkin takes us into a world of comets and miracles and soars above the ordinary with poetic, daring storytelling.”
The Gazette (Montreal)

“With enough colour and outrage in the characters to please Boccaccio, and enough love, venom and splendour in the proceedings to please Dante, Frutkin’s Fabrizio’s Return is a grand entertainment that will streak across the reader’s imagination, well, like a comet.”
—Yann Martel

“Woven into the threads of Fabrizio’s universe, where time and space fold with the ease and beauty of a passing storm, is the quest to find one’s true self, and to glimpse the life eternal. Mark Frutkin is a wonderful and generous writer.”
—Madeleine Thien

Fabrizio’s Return is a virtuoso performance of music, drama, faith, temptation and love that dazzlingly subverts the boundaries of time, while binding itself to humanity through the streak of a recurring comet.”
—Joan Barfoot

“Mark Frutkin still hasn’t heard that novels rarely enchant any longer, or that the form can’t match the seductions of the screen. Fabrizio’s Return compliments all the usual Frutkin dares – the stylistic bravura and erudition, the imaginative occupation of distant times and places – with a wit and charm that makes this story his most delightful, and slyly serious, to date.”
—Charles Foran

Fabrizio’s Return is a grand novel full of ossuaries and telescopes, gargoyles and magic potions, apocalyptic paintings, angels, comets, violins, of murmurations of starlings, and characters – such characters! – to make you fall in love.”
–Alan Cumyn

Praise for Mark Frutkin:

“Frutkin is a master of visual imagery.”
The Globe and Mail

“Alchemy exists in his ability to open our eyes to the commonplace.”
Toronto Star

“Frutkin is one of the most amusing authors writing in English in the world today.”
Ottawa Citizen

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