So a rabbi’s son and an Ethiopian go on this Quest . . .

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Frank Camp­bell

By Michael Chabon Scep­tre, 178pp, $ 32.95

HARRY Pot­ter, that vast liq­uid cyst bloat­ing the belly of lit­er­a­ture like a mock preg­nancy, in­vites mis­con­ceived ad­mi­ra­tion. If it’s a real Quest you be want­ing, me hearties, and not a sac of di­luted Tolkien and Bly­ton, try Michael Chabon.

Of course the Quest is a time­worn tem­plate: per­ilous jour­neys of the good few against the evil many. The good con­sist of me and, at a pinch, you. The bad are mon­sters, aliens, na­tives or bar­bar­ians. Seek the maiden, gold or grail, then re­store de­cent ga­lac­tic, feu­dal, im­pe­rial or racial or­der, de­pend­ing on whether you are Hag­gard, Kubrick or Cer­vantes.

Once upon a time, ( AD950, if you in­sist), there was a good king whose tol­er­ant do­main was a les­son to the bru­tal po­ten­tates of the neigh­bour­hood. His writ ran from the Cau­ca­sus to the Ukraine. This wise king ruled the Khaz­ars, a Tur­kic peo­ple who con­verted to Ju­daism in the 9th cen­tury, give or take. Alas, they were cracked like a nut be­tween the sav­age Vik­ing Rus and ex­pand­ing Is­lam, van­ish­ing from his­tory. Or so the story goes. Af­ter all, the win­ners bury his­tory deep. Any­way, Chabon’s model king is slain in a palace coup along with all his fam­ily, save one who es­capes. You can guess the rest. Resti­tu­tion. So why bother? Let me ex­plain.

Chabon’s tale is hi­lar­i­ous, dra­matic and evoca­tive of an ex­otic time and place. Lus­cious Ori­en­tal­ism per­vaded by the stench of sup­pu­rat- ing wounds, the in­cense of un­washed Franks ( no re­la­tion) and myrrh. Lean and taut, it is Quest and a par­ody of Quest. Chabon does in 40,000 words what J. K. Rowl­ing can’t in four mil­lion: spin a fan­tas­tic twisted tale for grown- ups.

Chabon’s he­roes are a pair of Shake­spearean low- lifes, two chancers who thieve and scam their way along a mi­nor spur of the Silk Road’’. Ze­lik­man is the fas­tid­i­ous, skinny son of a Frank­ish rabbi, an apos­tate with a rem­nant con­science, given to melan­choly. Yes, Woody Allen springs in­stantly to mind. His soul­mate Am­ram is a mas­sive, fa­tal­is­tic Ethiopian who also thinks him­self a Jew. They travel light, not be­ing overly en­cum­bered with prin­ci­ple’’. Our two mus­ke­teers are, given the date, swords­men, but sur­vive on their wits rather than their blades. Where they go is a mat­ter of chance and in­dif­fer­ence, but most of all money. They are ex­iles, re­signed to home­less­ness. For cash they agree to con­vey the venge­ful, un­hinged Fi­laq, stripling prince and right­ful heir to the Khaz­ari throne, to his cap­i­tal on the Caspian Sea. Grad­u­ally they adopt the cause and rise above mere self­ish­ness. They come upon scenes of hor­ror, Vik­ing atroc­i­ties con­nived at by the bru­tal Khaz­ari strong­man. Amid a wel­ter of ca­parisoned ele­phants and sob­bing refugees, the es­tab­lished or­der is re­in­stated. Our con men are re­deemed, self- dep­re­cat­ing su­per­heroes raised to a new moral plane through ac­tion.

Gen­tle­men of the Road is a vir­tu­oso vi­gnette by a mas­ter sto­ry­teller. Chabon takes a tired old genre and in­fuses it with new zest, intelligence and wit. He forces open your vo­cab­u­lary like a manic den­tist. Words you never knew ex­isted roll off your tongue. I al­ways thought a tarpan was Mal­colm Fraser’s pet snake. What more can one ask? Well, quite a lot, ac­tu­ally.

This book is a Jewish fan­tasy. Our Jewish he­roes save a Jewish state, as­sisted by a loyal Mus­lim army. It’s a reg­u­lar Chabon theme. His The Yid­dish Po­lice­men’s Union takes Franklin Roo­sevelt’s idea of a Jewish home­land in Alaska ( the frozen cho­sen’’) to its zany what- if limit, Is­rael hav­ing col­lapsed in 1948. In The Amaz­ing Ad­ven­tures of Kava­lier & Clay, which won Chabon a 2001 Pulitzer prize, a pair of Jewish refugees from Europe cook up Nazi- smash­ing comic- strip Jewish su­per­heroes.

Chabon de­lights in pop­u­lar cul­ture, his imag­i­na­tion driv­ing low­brow genre ve­hi­cles such as de­tec­tive fiction, hor­ror and comics for wild rides across high­brow ridges.

At 44, he has tried and failed to crack Hol­ly­wood. Not sur­pris­ing. He calls him­self a lo­gophilous ver­bi­vore and I can’t see Hol­ly­wood hacks mas­sag­ing his lit wit into a Tin­sel­town

script. He should try New York or Lon­don, where his an­ar­chic Pythonesque hu­mour would be ( a) un­der­stood and ( b) ap­pre­ci­ated.

Chabon is in­evitably con­tro­ver­sial. He pil­lo­ries fun­da­men­tal­ist Jews in The Yid­dish Po­lice­men’s Union. As a sec­u­lar Jew and a lib­eral he at­tracts the ire of hard­line Zion­ists who see him as a self­ind­ul­gent flake cartwheel­ing across a fraught po­lit­i­cal land­scape. Which is true. He’s a co­me­dian. The Pulitzer not­with­stand­ing, it’s time for Chabon to move up to the big league. In mid­dle age he seems con­tent to jug­gle and twirl the mi­nor gen­res into new and amus­ing shapes. Joust­ing with vo­cab­u­lary for its own sake also palls af­ter a while. It’s time to dazzle on a grander scale. And time to move be­yond Jewish home­land fan­tasies. There’s a big world to satirise out there.

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