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