In the Dark Ages, when most of Europe was covered in mud, shit, and the Black Plague, there was still a golden civilization in the East centred around Constantinople. The Byzantium Empire was all that was left of the once fabulous Roman Empire that stretched through Europe and Asia. In the eyes of the Christian world, it was a beacon for all things glorious, and was regarded as the toehold required for the re-conquest of the Holy Lands.
But just across the Black Sea lurked the Caliphs who controlled the lands that were so coveted by the Popes in Rome that they lost no sleep over spending the lives of the "faithful" on useless Crusades in the vain hope of recovering Jerusalem and putting the Infidels to the sword. But these were not the only two empires, nor the only faiths represented in the area.
For reasons best known to themselves the Kings of Khazar had in centuries past converted to Judaism. If Constantinople represented a beacon of hope for Christians, can you imagine what a Kingdom of Jews must have been for those who were spat upon, cursed, and routinely burned at the stake by their fellow citizens?
Even in Muslim controlled Spain, where Jews had risen to positions of power and were able to lead their lives relatively free of the injustices faced by their Christian ruled brethren, Khazar represented a place of wonder. Everybody wants to be masters of their own fate and not worry about if they will be welcome tomorrow, and to the Jews who felt like unwelcome guests wherever they went, Khazar would have represented that hope.
So it's not surprising that Michael Chabon's latest novel Gentlemen Of The Road published by Random House Canada through their Doubleday Canada's Bond Street Books imprint, featuring two Jewish adventurers would end up with Khazar being the locale for the greater part of their exploits. Though polar opposites in appearance, Zelikman, the white skinned, rake thin, and black clothed itinerant physician from the country of the Franks (present day Germany and France), and Amaran, a descendant of the Queen of Sheba's day's as bride of Solomon, hailing from Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) is aside from being black as coal, is as heavy set as his companion is gaunt, are as close as two men can be who are not related or sharing a bed.
Euphemistically referred to as Gentlemen of the Road, latter days might have found them called con artists, grifters, and hustlers. But in the days when the only law was if you cut your way out of the mess you created you were adjudged innocent, while if you ended up spilling your entrails across the courtyard of some misbegotten Inn you were guilty, the position of freebooter was often all that was available to a man of limited lineage but possessing martial skills. So it should surprise no one that the end of the first millennium would find such two such disparate characters doing whatever was necessary to keep the flesh on their bones and the devil off their back.
What does come as a shock to both of them is the sudden onset of altruism that sees them willing to lend their arms and brains to the cause of a deposed Prince of Khazar. A callow youth possessed of no redeeming features of character, he still somehow manages to embroil them in his cause to usurp the usurper of his father's throne. Trivialities like raising an army, dealing with Viking raiders, and marching across miles of some of the least inhospitable terrain in the East at the onset of winter, The Caucasus Mountains, and the surrounding steppes, are simply inconveniences to be overcome en route to his goal.
In his afterword, author Michael Chabon confesses to the fact that originally he had wanted to call the novel Jews With Swords but had such a hard time getting anyone to take that title seriously, including himself after a while, that he relented. How often do we hear tales of Jewish swashbucklers fighting their way across a continent with swords and wiles? Not very, in fact in all the annals of Jewish storytelling you'd be hard pressed I'm sure in finding such a creature.
Jewish characters tend towards the scholarly, with maybe the occasional intellectual revolutionary or troubled artistic soul thrown in for good measure. But men of the sword, Gentlemen of the Road, never. But with Michael Chabon's example, perhaps a whole new area of literary territory has been opened for exploration. Jewish Knights errant in search of Talmudic treasures guarded by fierce Dragons will roam the forests of Europe. Bands of mercenary Jewish warriors will be hired to attack on Sundays when all others are observing the Sabbath and be seen roaming the highways and byways of adventure stories.
Probably not, but that's not for lack of a good example. This is a beautifully executed, highly enjoyable adventure story that is more fun than your standard swashbuckler because it refuses to take itself seriously. But even with tongue planted firmly in cheek, Chabon has created two wonderful characters whose interplay throughout the novel provides more then half the fun. Chabon's use of language makes up the rest, at least for me, as he's created his own adventure story argot that sounds like typical pulp fiction dialogue and description with a heavy Jewish inflection.
But that doesn't stop there from being moments of genuine emotions that are so often scarce in the novels of adventure writers and pulp fiction. Instead of just being participants in the story carrying out the demands of the plot, the characters are real human beings who are what we really care about. In some ways Chabon inverts the traditional adventure story by having the plot merely be a means for us to get to know the central characters.
No review would be complete of this book if there were no mention of the illustration scattered throughout by Gary Gianni. Without a doubt they are some of the best pen and ink drawings I've seen in ages. It's not often that an illustrator manages to put down on paper exactly what I see in my mind's eye when reading an author's description of a character. He also has that rather singular skill of capturing a moment in time that makes it appear the characters are right in the middle of their action, and merely waiting for our backs to be turned so they can get back at it.
They are a perfect augmentation to Gentlemen Of The Road in both their aspect and presentation, and executed with a skill that is very rarely seen anymore. I've always had a love for pen and ink drawings that are able to capture the spirit of a story as well as assist in its telling, and Gianni accomplishes that in a way that few other illustrators seem capable of anymore.
Gentlemen Of The Road is a wonderful book, with great characters, a fun story, and best of all not an insult to anyone's intelligence. Instead of relying on sword and sorcery, slave girls, and demons of the depths to generate a plot, this book is set in our world's real history, and is the better tale for it then so many other so called adventures. It would be nice to think that writers will take a cue from Michael Chabon, and this would herald a trend towards more stories of this kind.
(Originally posted November 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.