Saturday 16 August 2008

'Jews with Swords'

Gentlemen Of The Road
by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon is a writer difficult to pin down. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his mammoth novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, scriptwriter of Spiderman 2, contributing editor of McSweeney's and a man who seems happy to swap literary and genre fiction like a hat. His working title for this novella was 'Jews with Swords' which was usually greeted by laughter when he mentioned it to friends. And indeed Jews have hardly gone down in history as a swashbuckling people but Chabon attempts to redress that balance with a tale which aims to emulate The Arabian Nights and The Three Musketeers but falls disappointingly short of either.

The characters are colourful enough. The first of our daring duo is Zelikman, a 'scarecrow' of a man with long blond hair, physician by trade, his weapon of choice a long lancet. His companion Amram is a giant Abyssinian who carries a Viking axe he affectionately calls 'Defiler of Your Mother'. These two gentlemen of the road become involved in transporting a young stripling through the ancient Kingdom of Khazaria which is in the middle of a power struggle that will inevitably pull in our intrepid adventurers.

There are beautiful illustrations throughout from Gary Gianni, which conjure just the right feel for this tale but in a shorter format Chabon struggles to really create the world of The Caucasus around 950 AD. He's clearly done a lot of research but it's plonked down pretty bluntly in places and can feel like your reading a succession of ye oldy worldy words.

But on his return to Atil from the summer hordes, the usurper Buljan ordered that his sukkah be erected on the donjon's roof, with its strategic views of the kagan's palace, the seafront, the Muslim quarter and the steppe, and above all with its relative nearness to the stars, among which his sky-worshipping and uncircumcised ancestors still hunted with infallible gyrfalcons for celestial game.

Perhaps the problem is that it was originally serialised in The New York Times and the episodic format doesn't allow the book to come together as a whole. It's strange given that one of the strengths of his writing in Kavalier and Clay was his ability to leave a chapter on a cliffhanger (much like the comic books that he was writing about) which compelled you to read on into the next, and the next, until its 650 pages had sped by. Chabon's prose can be overcomplicated at times and so perhaps isn't best suited to an exercise like this. Which is the other problem. It feels like an exercise, 'doing' an adventure tale with Jews to see if he can, rather than because it's any good or has any real heart behind it. It isn't bad by any means but after enjoying Kavalier so much this shorter book and The Final Solution have left me unsatisfied. I'm still waiting for the next substantial offering and I just hope that the lure of Hollywood doesn't rob us of great American novelist.


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