Reviews of The Nature of Truth
Troncoso, Sergio, The Nature of Truth, Arte Publico Press, 2014 (revised and updated paperback edition), ISBN-10: 1558857915, ISBN-14: 978-1558857919; Northwestern University Press, 2003 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8101-1991-9.
· Bronze Award for Multicultural Fiction in ForeWord’s Review’s Book of the Year Awards
for Genre Fiction in
· Finalist for Thriller and Suspense in ForeWord Review’s Book of the Year Awards
· Top Ten Best Fiction Books for 2014 by TheLatinoAuthor.com
Sergio Troncoso’s first novel—recently revised, expanded, and rereleased by Arte Publico Press—is a daring departure from the personal essays Troncoso is famed for….The Nature of Truth is not a thriller in the sense of pulp fiction; no, Troncoso’s The Nature of Truth is a thriller in the way Richard Wright’s Native Son is a thriller. And it’s an erudite reader’s novel in the way of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain is. Troncoso’s work places the reader on a knife’s edge of suspense, while challenging the reader to examine and question The [very] Nature of Truth, whether that truth be racially defined, intellectually constructed, or a scepter rising from ancient ideals of right and wrong….
Owing a huge debt to Nietzsche’s ideals of “On Truth and Lies in the Extra-Moral Sense” and his longer work The Birth of Tragedy, Troncoso’s The Nature of Truth’s protagonist Helmut Sanchez and the novel’s lesser characters Ariane Sassolini and Sarah Goodman believe they know the Truth of their Yale-protected worlds. But, through a series of fortunate, and some not-so-fortunate, encounters they soon find that nationalistic beliefs, those society promotes to hero status, and their own personal moral codes are merely constructed entities that can be eradicated and reconstructed according to an ever-evolving moral code that makes the nature of truth something that is as ephemeral as life itself….
Troncoso’s The Nature of Truth informs his mature works—From this Wicked Patch of Dust and Crossing Borders: Personal Essays—as they examine the ideas of borders, their permeability, and their dualistic nature of the real and the imagined. Without the intellectual questioning of truth in The Nature of Truth, his mature works, I believe, would not have been possible. Troncoso, primarily known for his US-Mexican Border works, is, as The Nature of Truth suggests, the brightest and most able of the modern Border writers and thinkers. And somewhere in Troncoso’s raising within the Border’s transnational diaspora, he found that the nature of truth can only be located in the confines of the self, the family, the community, and our own definition of the truth.
"The Nature of Truth is the best psychological drama I've read in a long time. Like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, the main character descends into a ghost-plagued anxiety where he must discover the nature of truth. He commits the most heinous act, for only by taking action can he relieve his own existential crisis. Fascinating reading."
---Rudolfo Anaya, author of Bless Me, Ultima and Zia Summer
Helmut decides his discovery of this long ago truth about Hopfgartner cannot survive if the Professor’s version of truth lives, so begins to fashion an elaborate plan to kill the lie so that the truth might live. Unbeknownst to him killing the truth will cause lies to grow bigger than ever, leaving his dark quest for the truth to absorb him to the point that he is in danger of losing his own mind as well as everything he knows and loves.
The Nature of Truth leads readers on a suspenseful path to discover whether or not the truth Helmut believes to be more important than a lie can live out its life as a lie, or if his version of the truth is really the lie. The psychological debate of right and wrong raised by Troncoso in The Nature of Truth will live on after its final pages are read.
Recommended for Adult readers.
---Mrs. Mac, the Librarian, for You Decide: Should I Read It or Not?
Troncoso’s writing is vivid, philosophical, and at times poetic. He makes the reader disgusted at the professor’s lack of morality, but then shows the immorality of his murder. The strength of the writing shows how both things can simultaneously be true, and taken as a whole, the novel serves as a reflection of the ideas of morality and truth. For example, Helmut finds his ‘Quixotic truth’ and acts upon it by avenging an innocent Jewish girl, then he has to create a ‘new truth’ to prevent his arrest. In the end, the truth makes Helmut emotionally sick and he confesses to his future wife Ariane. Helmut also hears at the funeral the ‘untrue’ comments by colleagues and family members that contrast tremendously with what he and the reader know about the dead professor.
At the end of the book, Helmut and Ariane
get the opportunity to start over in
---Miguel A. Cabañas for Camino Real from Instituto Franklin
"This unusually rich and finely crafted novel compellingly explores the many different ways --both good and bad-- that the desire for truth exerts its influence on us. A powerful and philosophically informed novel."
Della Rocca, Professor and Chair, Department of
As he bounces between his own guilt, his girlfriend’s moral sturdiness and a police investigation, Sanchez, the eternal outsider, begins to discover a deeper truth about human existence: the value of community and faith, which help us to rise above the black hole into which causal chains of blame and cold facts often lead.
Troncoso adroitly balances the pulpy aspects of hardboiled mystery with weighty philosophical issues and the labyrinthine inner workings of a major university. Poised at the intersection of Dostoyevsky...and Dashiell Hammett, The Nature of Truth is the sort of fast-paced but rewarding read that will make your summer complete.
Bowles for The
To write “the philosophic novel” is to risk both oversimplified analysis and watered-down narrative in a single volume. To avoid either, the balance between idea and drama must be perfect, the integration seamless. It’s daunting work, long and precarious. But for those who care passionately about rigorous argumentation and compelling, character-driven fiction—and Sergio Troncoso is obviously such a man—the challenge to combine the two modes must prove unbearable. . . .
As meta-fiction and the novel of information continue
to attract more and more of the literary spotlight, it’s refreshing to see a
writer like Troncoso put his ranging intellect to work fashioning a powerful,
old-fashioned story, complete with suspense, rising action, climax and a
denouement. No sooner does Troncoso establish his Yale setting with lyric,
razor-sharp detail—painting a campus of “pale yellow stone walls” —than does
his protagonist, Helmut Sanchez, start boldly down the road to crisis. This
occurs when Helmut, a handsome, morally scrupulous research assistant of
Mexican and German descent, identifies his employer Werner Hopfgartner
as the author of an inflammatory article some fifty years old. The handiwork of
a revered cultural critic, Professor Hopfgartner’s
rambling piece of pseudo-scholarship from post-war
None of this, in Troncoso’s hands, reads as the tabloid fodder it might become. If we are shocked by the depths of Hopfgartner’s depravity, we are at least primed to accept them. From the initial, work-obsessed exchanges rendered between this villain and his assistant, to the revelation of Hopfgartner’s near fascist diatribe from 1949, Troncoso swiftly conjures a Heidegger for the 21st century, an intellectual giant whose guilt extends outside the confines of academia and into living history. . . . A sensitive, generous lover and natural-born Samaritan who once saved the life of a suicidal undergraduate, Helmut betrays an empathy more than capable of reaching into the past, toward a little girl all but obliterated by history and the brutality of her persecutors. Helmut’s dark, new knowledge—a knowledge of rape, murder and Herr Professor’s one-time Nazi allegiance—is all the catalyst needed for realistic tragedy. When Helmut does set out to assassinate Hopfgartner, Troncoso delivers the scene in precise, evocative language that renders the morally fantastic utterly believable: “He sprinted over snowbanks, sliding and slipping. His face glistened with perspiration. His cotton shirt was soaked under his black leather jacket, which gleamed like shiny plastic.”. . .
It is with this trio [Helmut Sanchez, Ariane Sassolini, and Detective
Jack Rosselli] that the author excels as both
fictionist and moral epistemologist. When Helmut ventures beyond good and evil,
Troncoso refuses to leave his reader behind. It is more than a liberating
world, Troncoso suggests. It’s also nightmarish one, inducing the worst
symptoms of psychosis even in its most well-meaning inhabitants. In conveying
this, Troncoso’s powers of characterization and
description are equal to his analytic ones: “The blade in his hand glimmered in
the moonlight. He sliced into the fatty tissue of his forearm. He felt exquisite
pain. Blood, hot blood, ran out of his arm. Helmut clenched his fist, and the
red stream became fuller, warmer, quicker.” With Ariane
Sassolini, Troncoso gives us a hero for the story
playing out in the novel’s subtext. A scholar every bit as inquisitive as
Helmut, Ariane yet comes to embody the truth that
Helmut has forsaken: that conventional taboos, though conventional, serve a
grand ethical purpose. When her crisis arrives, again in the form of knowledge,
she must make a life-altering decision, and her one of compassion and
forgiveness for Helmut betrays a moral fortitude far exceeding that of her
beloved. Rosselli, on the other hand, lacks the
imagination required for compassion that large. He’s too mired in the data of
criminology to ever truly understand the criminal. Unable to identify the real
killer, motivated not by vengeance but by idealism, Rosselli
allows an innocent man,
Clearly, then, The Nature of Truth is no allegory. All three of the characters come to embody more than a philosophic agenda. But operating within the minds of each is a set of epistemic practices that Troncoso deftly contrasts. When juxtaposed, the Nietzschean valor of Sanchez, the Christian pragmatism of Sassolini and the blind inductivism of Rosselli make for a sustained, intellectual tension that perfectly complements the narrative one. If Troncoso occasionally tips his hand, as he does when Helmut self-consciously asks “What was morality anyway?”, or when the street-wise Rosselli puts forth a rather academic-sounding theory of racial division, the author is careful never to make the conflict between his characters’ “truths” too explicit. The subtlety, and fairness, with which Troncoso presents these conflicting frameworks stand as the novel’s crowning intellectual achievement, side by side with the artistic one: a convincing tale of murder and ruminating guilt. . . .
---Janus Head, an interdisciplinary journal of Philosophy, Literature and Psychology
I hope it isn't the kiss of
death to invoke the name of Dostoyevsky in praise of Sergio Troncoso's
impressively lucid first thriller, published as part of
When research assistant Helmut Sanchez reviews material in a German publication for renowned Yale University Professor Werner Hopfgartner, he unexpectedly finds a letter to the editor written by his employer in a response to an old magazine article. The letter urged the new generation of Germans and Austrians to "rid themselves of guilt to be capable of soaring back to previous splendor." As he embarks on a search for the "truth," Sanchez also explores his New Mexico/German heritage and his feelings of being set adrift in his own country. A sense of rigid self-righteousness and curiosity leads him to question whether Hopfgartner "was a part of the Nazi war machine or among the architects of ethnic cleansing." At Yale, the married professor's secret life included sexual exploits with attractive students, a love affair with a colleague, and a long-term homosexual relationship. When Hopfgartner is murdered, his broad field of victims raises the ancient question of who is justified to wreak vengeance. In a town against gown investigation, New Haven Detective Rosselli confronts the college community and the brooding protagonist Sanchez.
The Nature of Truth is a thriller that explores the philosophy of truth and whether one truth is more important than another. This well-written, fast-paced, introspective novel raises many questions about truth and evil, and wonders if eventually "murder even defeats the murderer."
"With an acute eye for detail, Sergio Troncoso tells the story of how one man's search for truth turns into a nightmare, involving an entire community. Fast-paced and chilling, The Nature of Truth explores the outermost limit of moral certitude."
---Anne Landsman, author of The Devil's Chimney
"The real detectives are those who are after truth. By keeping the sex and violence yet inserting philosophy, history and ethics into the mix, Sergio Troncoso has taken the literary mystery novel further than it's ever been taken."
---Ernesto Quiñonez, author of Bodega Dreams
Engaging the complex issues of race and identity into the battle of ideologies regarding crime and punishment, Sergio Troncoso's The Nature of Truth single-handedly redefines the Chicano novel and the literary thriller.
Born to a German father and a Chicana mother and raised in Germany, 20-something outsider Helmut Hirsch adopts his mother's maiden name and moves to New England, where his ability with languages and his scholarly temperament lead him to the musty library stacks of Yale.
As a researcher for the reputable Werner Hopfgartner, Helmut Sanchez carves a complacent niche for himself. Feeling "neither American nor German nor Mexican," he is more interested with the struggles of philosophy and the abstract tenets that stimulate thought not action. But his comfort zone is threatened when he uncovers his employer's sordid past as a Nazi sympathizer and, quite possibly, a Nazi soldier.
Feeling "a personal connection" to the war crimes, Helmut develops a moral righteousness and becomes determined to punish Hopfgartner if indeed his suspicions prove true. But justice is not served easily, and Helmut is plunged into a tormenting debate about right and wrong, responsibility and accountability.
Helmut, the academic turned sleuth, embarks on a journey through Italy and Austria to learn the truth about Hopfgartner, but this search becomes a process of self-discovery also as Helmut seeks out a community to make sense of his findings. By the end, not much will make sense, as evidenced by a series of subversions in the novel that mock givens and truths.
Under scrutiny, Ivy League professors, pillars of integrity and decorum, are as flawed as anyone else, except they banter "like one book talking to another" to disguise their insecurities. Hopfgartner, the philandering chaser of "young Yalies," turns out to be less of a monster when his true love, another man, resurfaces. And Helmut, the self-proclaimed hero, begins to adopt the instincts of a villain as he complies with his girlfriend's proclamation that "you need to be dishonest to function in this world. You need to lie to yourself."
Indeed the name of the game is survival, and in the world of letters, the rhetoric of deceit is both pervasive and a necessary power. But Helmut is forced to turn that logic upside down as he enters the metaphorical war with literal weapons, because "truth is the practical understanding of the human spirit."
For his psychological complexity, Troncoso's Helmut Sanchez is in good company with the likes of Leslie Marmon Silko's estranged Tayo and Dostoyevsky's guilt-ridden Raskolnikov. And The Nature of Truth is a unique meditation on redemption and retribution that tackles racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism with sensitivity and skill. Troncoso's legacy is in having expanded the social and geographical terrain of the Chicano narrative with enviable aplomb.
---Rigoberto González for The El Paso Times
"The Nature of Truth … was received with gratitude and has since been read with pleasure. The generic components of the quest story in its modern mode of suspense and novel of ideas seemed to me to be integrated in an exemplary way, and the version of pragmatism underlying the book's own construction of human agency is strongly held. Helmut is no Raskolnikov of course, and his implicit anxiety that he might be legitimates him in several ways for me. It's rare to find a novel with a university setting in which the substantive academic matters --institutional mores, politics, etc.-- aree well handled, or even plausible. The particularities of Yale and New Haven were of course appealing to a reader like me, but they didn't blind me to the book's other virtues, which were Ausgezeichnet."
---John Hollander, author of Harp Lake, In Time and Place, Tesserae & Other Poems, and Figurehead
"Are Chicanos limited to rewriting that same story over and over again about where we came from and who we are? Sergio Troncoso has widened the field for all of us, writing a novel with a range and depth that is fearlessly consumed with issues of the mind. What a gutsy book!"
---Dagoberto Gilb, author of The Magic of Blood and Woodcuts of Women
This is a story set within the walls of Yale. It is a novel deep with suspense, sex, murder, and brings to light hidden holocaust lies deep within campus walls. From the moment that the story begins, the author captures the reader. It is a book that can’t be put down. Once you begin you are hooked….
The plot is filled with many twists and turns that it keeps you on the edge of your seat to the very end. You almost don’t want the story to finish because it is intense, yet you want it to do so because your anxiety level is going through the roof. And that dear readers is a testament to a great story!
Not only does the author weave in a suspenseful plot that includes the main character, but he adds a secondary plot that includes the German Professor seducing young students. Mr. Troncoso pulls out every punch with this story and you won’t be disappointed.
If the author’s purpose in writing this novel was to entertain and engage the reader, he did so splendidly….From start to finish the book was full of suspense and I loved it. I wasn’t expecting the ending and that made it more enjoyable because it kept you thinking about it long after the book was laid to rest. The dialog and scenes were perfectly placed and it made the story flow with ease. It felt as if you were right there with the characters – another testament to good writing.
This is definitely a book you need to buy and read. I could easily see this book made into a movie sometime in the future. The only question is, “Screenplay writers where are you?”
---Corina Martinez Chaudhry for TheLatinoAuthor.com
Sergio Troncoso is the son of Mexican immigrants who
grew up in
Troncoso's main character is Helmut Sanchez, a research assistant to Yale professor Werner Hopfgartner. The professor, Sanchez discovers, is living the good life, enjoying a reputation built on the labors of his lowly assistants and awarding high grades to attractive coeds in exchange for sexual favors while colleagues are oblivious to his secret past as a Nazi operative who took part in the Holocaust. Helmut's accidental discovery leads to a deepening obsession with the truth of Hopfgartner's involvement in the Nazi movement and wartime Germany. Driven in his quest for the facts, Sanchez pursues a trail through dusty library stacks in America and Europe, and along the way crosses an invisible boundary between the domains of the investigator and the judge. His girlfriend and only confidante in the matter, Ariane Sassolini, provides essential balance for Helmut as he reels in disgust with the professor's past sins and present deceit.
Troncoso excels as a narrator, a storyteller, and a creator of vivid characters and images, as demonstrated in his earlier story collection and again here….Troncoso himself remains a man to watch as his exceptional talent seems certain to produce works of great interest in years to come.
---Southwest Book Views
"No absolute assumptions, no easy judgments, The Nature of Truth is an investigation into culpability and transgression. The crimes? --moral, physical, philosophical, historical-- just to start. Troncoso has rendered a novel that is wide-ranging, challenging, and genuinely satisfying."
---Victoria Redel, author of Loverboy and Where the Road Bottoms Out
"I found The Nature of Truth hard hitting. The professor's characterization is on target: a troubled mind who finds not only satisfaction in sex but in continuing his penchant for control which he enjoyed in World War II. The characters are real, weak, generous, guilt-ridden, and thus, human."
---Rolando Hinojosa, author of Ask a Policeman, Becky and Her Friends, and The Useless Servants
Nature of Truth focuses on Werner Hopfgartner, professor
of German literature at Yale, and the havoc he wreaks on the lives of an
insecure female graduate student from
Despite Helmut's revulsion for Hopfgartner, he manages to work overtime on his "Compilation"—some kind of ghostwritten treatise that will cap off an illustrious career— but as the novel goes on, his researches fail to help him make sense of the dilemma he faces, and his thirst grows for swift justice. "Yes, justice! Real action! Real morality!" Helmut seethes. "What was not wanted was another philosophical seminar of nothing, from nothing, for the purpose of nothing." He plans a drastic act that will connect the present and the past with a trail of blood….
Whatever you think of [Paul] de Man, you will be comforted to know that the accessible and enjoyable novels reviewed here do not derive from his knotty theorems. A more likely influence is Stephen Greenblatt, University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard and founder of the so-called New Historicism. "My deep, ongoing interest," Greenblatt has said, "is in the relation between literature and history, the process through which certain remarkable works of art are at once embedded in a highly specific life-world and seem to pull free of that life-world. I am constantly struck by the strangeness of reading works that seem addressed, personally and intimately, to me, and yet were written by people who crumbled to dust long ago."…
In the same spirit, [the five novels reviewed here, including The Nature of Truth] aren't just for graduate students but for anybody who still cares about getting to the truth in a world that seems to prize subterfuge, anyone who longs to discover how to make graduate work or any old day job into something relevant. That is, anybody with a brain.
---The Believer Magazine
[T]he issues of identity, the connection between Helmut’s own identity and his sense of guilt concerning the professor’s sympathies, and the political and philosophical issues…make the story itself so rich…. [T]he Nature of Truth is an interesting and provocative read.
---The Review of Contemporary Fiction
In "Fresh Challah," an essay published in Hadassah Magazine in
1999, Sergio Troncoso described sitting in an
It would have been natural for Troncoso to follow the usual conventions of the category, carving out a predictable career portraying life in the barrio, in boisterous bilingual families and in encounters with the Anglophone outside world. His first novel defies that expectation. The Nature of Truth is an academic thriller set among the kind of migrant workers who never grace the stage of Luis Valdez's Teatro Campesino: the students and faculty assembled from many countries for cerebral labor at Yale University.
Helmut Sanchez, the novel's protagonist, is a Chicano who has never even visited the American Southwest. He grew up in Germany, the son of a soldier who brought the bride he met at Fort Bliss, outside El Paso, back home to Europe with him. After Helmut's father died, his mother returned to her own people in New Mexico, but --though he adopted her maiden name as &<hhiss oown-- Helmut did not accompany her. When readers are introduced to him, at age 26, he is working as the research assistant to Werner Hopfgartner, a distinguished professor in the Department of German at Yale. The younger man's task is to prepare drafts of scholarly articles that Hopfgartner, nearing retirement, will publish under his own illustrious name.
When Helmut discovers an article from the 1950s in which Hopfgartner defends the Nazis, he is appalled and aroused, determined to discover whether the famous German scholar, who argues against severing thought from action, actually participated in the atrocities of the Third Reich. (Hopfgartner conceals essential truths not only about his complicity with atrocity, and not only about the authorship of articles signed by him but written by his assistant: Behind the door of his office at Yale, the lecherous professor is a sexual predator who exploits the vulnerability of young women in his classes.) With help from his girlfriend, Ariane Sassolini, an immigrant from Italy, Helmut tracks down disturbing truths about Hopfgartner's life before his immigration to the United States. During a trip through Europe with Ariane, Helmut pilfers papers from a 900-year-old Austrian monastery that seem to implicate Hopfgartner in the rape and murder of a young Jewish woman. Identifying with the victims of the Holocaust, Helmut plots Hopfgartner's execution, in retribution for his crimes against the Jews.
In Vienna, Helmut is disgusted by the antisemitic graffiti scrawled on a Holocaust memorial, and he shares the reaction expressed by an old friend, Anton Schmidtz: "When they attack that statue, they attack us. We are all Jews now. Every last one of us. We should never forget that." Helmut's inability to forget what he learns of Hopfgartner's genocidal past turns him into a fanatical avenger, less quixotic than psychotic.
tale of love triumphant over bigotry and zealotry, The Nature of Truth enables its philosemitic
author to wear his heart on his sleeve, right beside an imaginary yellow star.
Troncoso, who has studied and taught at Yale, portrays the campus as an
intellectual enclave that tries to remain oblivious to the ambient urban
blight. About the strained relationship between
The Nature of Truth is
an exploration of the ways in which lies can skew our lives. Over dinner at the
end of the novel, Jonathan Atwater --a gay librarian who, like a Jew victimized
by Nazi storm troopers, was assaulted by homophobic thugs-- presents his theory
about the decline of civilization. "Two important things have gone by the
wayside, in my opinion," he says, "and I believe they've affected
each other in a miserable manner. Family and truth." According to
Sergio Troncoso's new novel,
The Nature of Truth, contains all the
essential ingredients of a well-written mystery and murder tale without
becoming formulaic. The book pushes the reader beyond the crimes at hand into a
philosophical consideration of the concepts of truth, redemption, and revenge. Troncoso's first book, The
Last Tortilla and Other Stories, which won the Premio
Aztlán for best book by a new Chicano writer and the
Southwest Book Award from the Border Regional Library Association, is a
collection of short stories filled with characters trapped in situations where
the right path is unclear. Troncoso explores this dilemma further in The Nature of Truth through the main
character, Helmut Sanchez. His name says it all. The son of a German father and
a Hispanic mother who fell in love at Fort Bliss ("Fort Bliss?" one
of the characters exclaims, "What a name! How romantic."), Sanchez
works as a research assistant in the German Department at Yale yet chooses to
go by his mother's Latino surname. It's tempting to wonder if the difficulties
Sanchez faces with Ivy League culture stem from Troncoso's
own experiences --an
"At the heart of this intricate novel is the story of a young man's unraveling as he resolves to avenge an atrocity. The philosophical subtleties and moral ambiguities of vengeance are not easily dramatized but Troncoso handles them with assurance. An ambitious and penetrating book."
---Alec Wilkinson, author of A Violent Act, The Riverkeeper, and Big Sugar
Read the first three chapters from the 2014 revised edition of The Nature of Truth, and click here for discussion questions. Listen to Sergio Troncoso talk about his novel on National Public Radio with Maria Hinojosa: NPR Interview on Latino USA.