8. Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon (2007) 204 p.

A TALE OF ADVENTURE

I picked this up from Dymocks on a whim because I liked the style. It was clearly a tribute to the old kind of adventure books I read in my youth, right down to a contents page for the sub-titled illustrations. I was very surprised to find, when I looked up the author’s name before reading, that he was a Pulitzer Prize winner.

But it shows. Gentlemen of the Road is a swashbuckling adventure following the plight of two comically mismatched Jews – Zelikman, a tall and pale Frenchman, and Amram, a burly African – as they travel across the Caucasus circa 950 A.D. and reluctantly aid a deposed heir in overthrowing his father’s usurper. There are war elephants, kidnappings, battles in crumbling ruins, assassinations, deceptions, prisonbreaks and countless other staples of the pulp adventure genre. All in all, it’s the kind of thing I write. But despite the lack of any apparent literary value in higher circles (which, ridiculously, Chabon seems compelled to apologise for in the afterword), this book is a masterpiece of language. Chabon’s eclectic vocabulary and skillful handling of words are truly something I admire. Take this sentence, for example:

On his return to Atil from the summer hordes, the usurper Vuljan 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-worshiping and uncircumcised ancestors still hunted with infallible gyrfalcons for celestial game.

Or:

A shrill horseman’s whistle split the air, and the soldiers abandoned the violence of their grief and turned to listen to the words of a trooper who had stayed out of the fracas, a wiry, bow-legged veteran nearly as grizzled as Amram, one of those men of no great rank or bravery who by virtue of heartlessness, opportunism and a long streak of luck outlasted all their fellows and so ranked as secret commanders of their troop. When this old veteran had the ears of his comrades he explained, with patience and regret, that they must now consider their company disbanded and, each man taking a share of water and food and a horse, scatter to the winds and the mountains, like drops of mercury on a rumpled carpet.

Or:

Across a river frozen to the depth of a planted spear, along an avenue of blazing torches, drawn by reindeer in a royal sledge with fittings of mica and electrum, accompanied by ram’s-horn blasts and harness bells and the scrape of iron runners against the ice; tender contraband, hidden at her father’s side in the grandiose reek of a bearskin, with the heat and the weight of him against her and the full moon hanging minted against the sky like a bright dirham: that was the way she had last crossed over to the island of the kagan and the palace where he dwelt in friendless splendor.

This occasionally became annoying, but only due to my own faults; they’re the kind of sentences you want to savour with care, not skim over as I generally do while reading. This is the kind of writing I aspire to one day achieve.

Books: 8/50
Pages: 2722

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