Father Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão was a pioneer in 18th-century aviation. His flying ship, the Passarola, never succeeded in transporting humans, but what if it had truly flown? Azhar Abidi uses the inspiration of Bartolomeu to create a fantastical tale of the Brazilian-born priest and his airship (set roughly twenty years after the real Lourenço demonstrated a flying model in Lisbon), narrated through the eyes of Bartolomeu’s brother and traveling companion, Alexandre. Of course, both brothers succeed in getting into a great deal of trouble in Portugal; Alexandre takes the ship for a spin with the niece of Bartolomeu’s patron, and Cardinal Conti and the Inquisition in Lisbon pursue the brothers on charges of sorcery. The brothers escape to the court of France’s Louis XV and meet the king, Voltaire, and other luminaries. Unfortunately, their stay is short, once Louis decides that the ship would be useful for his military maneuvers in Poland. Their adventures take them through several hardships; as Bartolomeu is consumed with his dream, Alexandre finds himself turning to more ordinary pleasures, like home and family.
Abidi writes his tale with an 18th-century picaresque flavor. Except for his enjoyable detailing of the science of flight (which recalls Poe’s “The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaal”), the novel has its roots in fantasies like Candide or Gulliver’s Travels, with the brothers moving from one episodic adventure to another, making observations, and moving on to their next foreign experience. Like most of these literary fantasies, Passarola Rising keeps the reader at a distance, despite its first-person narration. The novel is like a pantomime or fable. It amuses and even provokes thought, but the reader has very little engagement with Bartolomeu or Alexandre; they and the Passarola serve as a vehicle to the episodes.