wear ones heart sleeve

The Nature of Truth

The Nature of Truth is a novel by Sergio Troncoso first published in 2003 by Northwestern University Press. It explores righteousness and evil, Yale and the Holocaust.

Plot summary

Helmut Sanchez is a young researcher in the employ of renowned Yale professor Werner Hopfgartner. By chance, Helmut discovers a letter written decades ago by his boss mocking guilt over the Holocaust. Appalled, Helmut digs into the scholar's life and travels to Austria and Italy to uncover evidence of Hopfgartner's hateful past. Meanwhile, Hopfgartner's colleague and rival, Regina Neumann, wants to reveal the truth about Hopfgartner's sexual liaisons with vulnerable students before the professor's imminent retirement. Neumann traps Sarah Goodman, an insecure graduate student trying to find her place at Yale, into initiating formal charges of sexual harassment against Hopfgartner. Soon Helmut's intellectual quest for the truth metamorphoses into a journey of justice and blood, one with unforeseen consequences.

Characters in "The Nature of Truth"

  • Helmut Sanchez – the researcher, protagonist
  • Ariane Sassolini – Helmut's girlfriend
  • Werner Hopfgartner – Helmut's university employer
  • Sarah Goodman – Hopfgartner's graduate student
  • Regina Neumann – Hopfgartner's colleague and rival
  • Jonathan Atwater – Helmut's library friend

Main themes

Troncoso's novel explores how a man of Mexican-German heritage navigates a complex moral universe, and how his experience reveals the differences and links between righteousness and evil in the quest for the truth.

Literary significance & criticism

A reviewer from Janus Head, a journal of Continental Philosophy, Literature, and Phenomenological Psychology, wrote: "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, Atwater, to suffer at the hands of thugs.

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."

----A reviewer from The Forward wrote: "In "Fresh Challah," an essay published in Hadassah Magazine in 1999, Sergio Troncoso described sitting in an Upper West Side cafe on Erev Yom Kippur devouring fresh rugelach, luscious fortification for the next day's fast. Though not Jewish, Troncoso identifies with Jews because he admires in them qualities he adored in his abuelita --his grandmother-- a feisty survivor of the Mexican Revolution: "She started with her belief in God, she tested her actions from day to day, and she gained a sense of what was possible, what was stupid, what was unjust, and what was a real achievement." The son of immigrants from Chihuahua, Troncoso started life in Ysleta, an impoverished colonia on the outskirts of El Paso, Texas. His first book, an award-winning collection called The Last Tortilla and Other Stories (University of Arizona Press, 1999) that depicted the experiences of Mexican Americans along the Rio Grande border, established him as a promising voice in Chicano fiction.

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 his own-- 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.

A sentimental 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 New Haven and Yale, he writes: "One was in the gutter, the other was in the clouds." His portrait of Hopfgartner, who found safe haven in American academe from his tainted German past, recalls the case of Paul de Man, the Yale literary eminence whose collaboration with the Nazis in wartime Belgium was exposed posthumously.

As its ponderous title suggests, 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 Atwater, truth, disembodied from the living communities that give it meaning, has become a vapid abstraction. The Nature of Truth concludes within the embrace of la familia, in Chicano New Mexico. But...Troncoso recognizes that, though truth lies within the community, a failure to acknowledge the validity of other communities is the root of lethal lies."


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