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