Au­thor bor­rows from, takes lib­er­ties with the Bard in bril­liant romp

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Har­riet Zaid­man

WHEN do Shake­speare and Edgar Allen Poe ap­pear in the same story? When Amer­i­can writer Christo­pher Moore mashes the grapes of tragedy with casks of Amon­til­lado, brew­ing a wickedly funny vin­tage of me­dieval in­trigue and re­venge. Among other jobs, Moore has worked as a roofer, gro­cery clerk, ho­tel night au­di­tor and in­sur­ance bro­ker. While he put food on the ta­ble, he sprin­kled it with the Bard’s words, cook­ing up a life for the char­ac­ters be­yond the plays. The Ser­pent of Venice is a se­quel to Fool (2009), in which Pocket, Lear’s jester, takes cen­tre stage. Pocket uses his wits and glugs of rib­ald wit­ti­cisms to re­solve the king’s dis­pute with his daugh­ters, res­cu­ing Eng­land from rack and ruin. In this novel Moore again takes lib­er­ties with time and events to suit the story (he sets it in 1299), bor­row­ing from King Lear, The Mer­chant of Venice, Othello and other plays. The Cru­sades have proven to be prof­itable en­ter­prises. Iago and An­to­nio scheme to pit one coun­try against the next in the name of Chris­ten­dom. The good Cordelia, now queen af­ter her fa­ther’s death, op­poses their plans on prin­ci­ple, so they poi­son her. Pocket, her lover, grieves and vows re­venge. But the knaves lure him down to the cat­a­combs and wall him in, ex­pect­ing that to be the end of their prob­lem. But un­like Poe’s For­tu­nato, chained for­ever, Pocket is res­cued by an un­seen force that swims in when the tide fills the cham­ber. From then on it’s a mat­ter of brinks­man­ship, spy­ing, ad­van­tage, col­lud­ing and machi­na­tion — some of Pocket’s best qual­i­ties, as he tries to thwart the con­spir­a­tor’s plans to over­throw the Vene­tian Doge (prince) and sat­isfy his own vengeance. He must deal with Shy­lock — bit­ter and venge­ful at his treat­ment as a Jewish mer­chant — Shy­lock’s re­bel­lious daugh­ter Jes­sica, the beau­ti­ful Por­tia and her troupe of suit­ors, the no­ble Othello, a host of other Shake­pearean de­viants and an opin­ion­ated Greek cho­rus. Marco Polo also drops in, fresh from his ex­plo­rations to China. Through it all, Pocket is ev­ery bit a jester — mock­ing, mim­ick­ing and an­noy­ing. His vul­gar, lit­er­ary puns would win Shake­peare’s ap­proval (“he’s been stricken with an apoplexy of the sec­ond per­son”). But the role of the jester in his­tory is to ex­pose the truth. Pocket pur­sues right and jus­tice, aided by a deus ex machina — a mys­te­ri­ous ser­pent trolling Venice’s dark wa­ters.

It’s an in­tel­li­gent, hi­lar­i­ous plot, its var­i­ous lit­er­ary ori­gins seam­lessly kneaded to­gether. But it’s more than an ex­am­ple of Moore’s knowl­edge of lit­er­a­ture or writ­ing talent; the nar­ra­tive also lays bare the ug­li­ness of the anti-Semitism and racism of Euro­pean so­ci­eties. The word “ghetto” is Ital­ian, stem­ming from the small is­land where Jews were con­fined by law. Jews had to wear yel­low hats and were re­stricted to cer­tain oc­cu­pa­tions. Shy­lock is Vene­tian-born, but as a Jew is de­nied the same rights of ci­ti­zen­ship and op­por­tu­nity as Chris­tians. Moore uses Pocket to pro­vide comic re­lief — “Hath not a Jew shoes? If you count them are they not two Jew shoes? If you dye them blue, are they not two blue Jew shoes?” But the bru­tal at­ti­tude and treat­ment of the “alien” per­me­ated the DNA of Euro­pean so­ci­eties, mak­ing the Nazi geno­cide of Jews pos­si­ble in the 20th century. Sim­i­larly, as a black man, Othello suf­fers taunts and cru­elty de­spite his bril­liance and his loy­alty to Venice. A res­i­dent of San Fran­cisco, Moore is known for his ir­rev­er­ent, quirky plots. Mix­ing just the right com­bi­na­tion of in­gre­di­ents, his 13th novel is a laugh-out-loud lit­er­ary suc­cess, both a de­light­ful en­trée and dessert that ful­fils a reader’s ap­petite for qual­ity and com­ment. Har­riet Zaid­man is a teacher-li­brar­ian in

Win­nipeg.

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