Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon, Random House.
Michael Chabon, the author of this wild, picaresque novel, is an accomplished master of several literary styles.
After winning a Pulitzer Prize for the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), he wrote a book for children, several screenplays and a bestselling novel about Jews in an imaginary Alaska, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (2007). Chabon is confident and limber, humorous and elegant – he commands the reader’s attention.
Gentlemen of the Road first appeared as a serial in the New York Times magazine. In an afterword to the book, the author maintains that “the story of the Jews centres around – one might almost say that it starts – the hazards and accidents, the misfortunes and disasters, the feats of inspiration, the travail and despair, and the intermittent moments of glory and grace, that entail upon journeys from home and back again. For better and worse, it has been one long adventure.”
The gentlemen of the book’s title are two unlikely figures. The first of these is a young, pale, spare, black-clad Frankish Jewish physician, Zelikman, whose horse is named Hillel. The other, Amram, is an Ethiopian, a former soldier in the Byzantine army who fancies himself a Jew. They both bear formidable weapons.
Zelikman describes himself as a person not overly encumbered by principle. I am a gentlemen of the road, an apostate from the faith of my fathers, a renegade, a brigand, a hired blade, a thief, but on this one small principle of economy… I have to hold firm: if we can only save them one man at a time, then by God we must only kill them one man at a time.”
The novel is set around 950 CE, somewhere in the Caucasus, where the rootless duo experience a series of close shaves as they separate fools from their money and beat hasty retreats.
Eventually, they end up protecting a young Khazar Prince named Filaq, whose throne has been usurped by a wily and unscrupulous uncle who seeks his destruction.
The trio head for Khazaria, where a Turkic people had converted en masse to Judaism in the eighth or ninth century. Around this little known incident in Jewish history, and remote location, the author weaves a romantic account that includes unruly red-haired Jews.
At one point Zelikman and Amram become separated. The joy of finding each other is described in this way. “He rose a little unsteady to his feet. His face was streaked with ash, ash lay on his hair and scalp and his eyes were crazed with pink. He came wincing down the steps of the mosque as if his back or hips were bothering him, and he and Zelikman fell into each other’s arms. From within the mosque came the broken voices of men at prayer. Amram stank of burned tallow, smoke and a hard day’s labour, but underneath it all there was the familiar smell of him like sun on dusty sandstone. The sound of prayer found some kind of grateful echo in Zelikman’s heart. ‘Late as usual,’” Amram said.
The novel brims with breathless action, raucous humour, colourful characters and an extraordinary elephant.
Surprisingly, neither of the main characters make much use of their weapons. They are hardly ferocious. Perhaps Chabon is making a point that Jews at heart are irenic rather than truculent – more inclined toward introspection than outward behaviour.
I must confess that although I was impressed with the author’s unrelenting creativity and superb literary skills, the book itself left me confused and unsatisfied. Is this a medieval Jewish western? Is it a parody on Hollywood fantasy films? Does it carry an elusive message about the Jew as wanderer who must find the need to defend himself?
Perhaps all of these things. Curious readers must seek the answers for themselves.