Woody Allen meets the Three Musketeers
With Gentlemen of the Road, a hilarious pastiche adventure tale about medieval Jews with swords, Michael Chabon confirms that he is the master of genre-bending novel-writing.
In the opening chapter of Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, the reader is introduced to a myna which, perched by the fireplace of a caravansary in eastern Caucasus, has for years astounded travellers ‘with its ability to spew indecencies in ten languages’.
The myna, being sharp-tongued, multilingual and far from home, turns out to have much in common with the heroes of the story: the odd pair of Zelikman, a Frankish Jew with the physique of a scarecrow, and Amram, a giant African who claims to descend from the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.
They are blades and thieves for hire who moonlight as swindlers. Their weapons reflect their physiques, Zelikman being outfitted with a slender bodkin named the Lancet, and Amram with a rune-engraved axe named Defiler of Your Mother.
Gentlemen of the Road is an adventure tale, which, as the inside of the book jacket explains, summons the spirit of Arabian Nights and The Three Musketeers. It takes place around 950AD in the Caucasus Mountains, a time and place where multiculturalism had nothing to do with government policies, but was a consequence of bloody conquests, dispersals and journeys of discovery.
Zelikman and Amram are charged with bringing an adolescent fugitive prince named Filaq to the safety of his mother’s family in Azerbaijan. Filaq is the child of the assassinated bek, the ruler of the Khazar empire. Hearing Filaq speak ‘in the holy tongue’ stirred in Zelikman ‘a strong desire to see the fabled kingdom of wild red-haired Jews’ of Khazaria. Ruled by the bek, the army leader, and the kagan, the supreme king who was never seen, but whose words were law, Khazaria was a medieval kingdom of Turkic people whose leaders adopted Judaism.
After the promise of a generous reward and the sudden appearance of an arrow in the throat of Filaq’s guardian, the heroes’ adventures, brushes with death and amusing banter take off.
Filaq is grief stricken and vengeful following the murder of his parents at the hands of the usurper, Buljan, who also sold Filaq’s beloved brother Alp into slavery among the Rus. Ungrateful for the Jewish swordsmen’s efforts to bring him to the safekeeping of his grandfather, he curses them and attempts escape at every opportunity.
Spurred on less by the promise of gold than by conscience unbefitting scoundrels and thieves, Zelikman and Amram go after Filaq, following close on the heels of Buljan’s manhunters. Zelikman, being a physician, saves the life of one such manhunter, the opportunistic Hanukkah who is in it for the money and to please a woman. He joins the heroes in their rescue mission.
Along the road, their adventures include the separation and reunification of Zelikman and his horse Hillel, the loss of a hat and the gain of another, a rescue mission carried out with the clothes and elephant belonging to Radanites, Jewish merchants, and a sojourn in a dosshouse in the embrace of infidel whores. The gentlemen trio end up helping Filaq convince an army of Muslim elite mercenaries, the last troops in the Army of Khazaria loyal to Buljan, to form the Brotherhood of the Elephant and commit mutiny.
Gentlemen of the Road first appeared in 15 instalments in the New York Times Magazine, and each chapter has its own surprises, plot twists and colourful characters, ending always on a note of suspense or anticipation. In its book form, it has the antique look and feel of a period piece. With its green and gold hardcover, large-sized font and old fashioned illustrations accompanied by one-line captions (‘At this there was a murmuring among the soldiers…’; ‘He would say or do anything if it might mean a chance to fly home and seek a fool’s revenge’), it looks like a classic, enchanting story book. But it is also infused with contemporary ideas and modern-feeling deadpan dialogue. This is not surprising, considering Chabon bends literary genres like Gellerian spoons. His previous book for example, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, was a counterfactual Yiddish noir novel.
The magic of Gentlemen of the Road is somewhat lost, though, with Chabon’s apologetic afterword. Although funny and well crafted, it suggests a nervousness that the reader might have been left with the impression that there is no element of seriousness at all behind the fanciful appearance of the pastiche adventure tale.
But the central theme of the book is of course the Jewish experience of exile, displacement and wandering. ‘For better or worse’, Chabon writes, ‘it has been one long adventure – a five-thousand-year Odyssey’. And, at times, he gives serious nods to precedents of long-lasting conflict. Consider the heroes’ encounter with the mayor of a Jewish Khazar town. He recounts that earlier in the year, ‘the Muhammadans burned Jewish prayer houses and put to the sword any who would not profess Islam…If the great Caliph in Baghdad sees fit to permit his Jews to be burned, it would be improper for the kagan of the Khazars not to ensure that his Muslims receive the same treatment.’
Keen, it seems, to answer those critics who believe serious authors don’t do ‘swords-and-horses’ tales or outdated genre fiction, Chabon writes in the afterword: ‘I’m not saying – let me be clear about this – I am not saying that I disparage or repudiate my early work, or the genre (late-century naturalism) it mostly exemplifies.’
Chabon also takes the opportunity to explain why he gave up on the original working title, Jews with Swords. He found that, rather than evoking images of brave Jewish soldiers in great battles or ancient Jewish warriors like Judah Maccabee, the phrase made people laugh and summoned visions of ‘an unprepossessing little guy, with spectacles and a beard, brandishing a sabre: the pirate Motel Kamzoil. They pictured Woody Allen backing toward the nearest exit behind a barrage of wisecracks and a wavering rapier…’
But Zelikman, a skinny, pale and despondent physician who brandishes a weapon that invokes ridicule, rather than fear, doesn’t seem too far off the mark. His line, ‘I don’t save lives… I just prolong their futility’, could have come straight out of an Allen movie.
Chabon has recently published his first collection of non-fiction, a series of essays in praise of reading and writing. His own work is a delight to read and if, as was the case for Scheherazade, Chabon’s life hung on captivating storytelling, then his readers could have no other choice than, like King Sharyar did for his bride, to subvert the author’s destiny.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon is published by Sceptre. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)