A lively if long-winded am­ble through his­tory

John Boyne’s time-shift­ing novel buckles un­der the weight of laboured speech and his­tor­i­calese

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Jonathan McAloon

A Trav­eller at the Gates of Wis­dom By John Boyne

JDou­ble­day, 448pp, £16.99

ohn Boyne’s lively and over­reach­ing new novel be­gins with King Herod’s Mas­sacre of the In­no­cents and ends in the fu­ture. Its artist nar­ra­tor lives the nor­mal life­span of a hu­man, but over two mil­len­nia. Some­times he paints boats in Egypt, em­broi­ders in South Korea or writes nov­els from Scot­tish jails.

The per­spec­tive of A Trav­eller at the Gates of Wis­dom shifts a few decades with each chap­ter, its story and most of the par­tic­u­lars be­ing taken up in re­lay by a dif­fer­ent man in a dif­fer­ent coun­try. But each has a vi­o­lent older brother, a pro­tec­tive and jeal­ous sis­ter who would have made a great war­rior had it not been for her gen­der, and a hand­some, clever adopted cousin who will cause the nar­ra­tor great pain and drive him to vengeance.

The reader doesn’t suf­fer much whiplash, chap­ter to chap­ter, adapt­ing to the new con­fig­u­ra­tions, and picks up the knack quickly. Along with the echoes of fam­ily his­tory, in­ci­dents thread their way through each time-frame. Dig­ni­taries reap­pear un­der dif­fer­ent an­i­mal monikers. Lul­la­bies, nat­u­ral dis­as­ters and cer­tain arte­facts be­come mo­tifs.

“I know this much,” the nar­ra­tor says dur­ing one of his 50 life­times, “the things that sur­round us may change, but our emo­tions will always re­main the same. A man who lost his beloved wife a thou­sand years ago suf­fered the same grief that I felt when I lost mine, no more and no less.”

Our artist nar­ra­tor For­rest Gumps his way through his­tory, hav­ing a hand in the cre­ation of the Bud­dha of Bamiyan moun­tain, the Book of Kells and the Sis­tine Ceil­ing. There are the Black Death in north­ern Europe, rope tricks in In­dian mar­kets and Maoris performing the Haka for white colonists. The brief ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing in any of Boyne’s set­tings is a sort of tourism, while the broad ex­pe­ri­ences of the char­ac­ters re­in­force the book’s artis­tic mes­sage of uni­ver­sal­ity.

To fur­ther es­tab­lish this, Boyne desta­bilises the his­tor­i­cal in­tegrity of his set pieces. Pre-con­quest Cen­tral Amer­i­cans know Euro­pean myths and pre-con­quest South Amer­i­cans have Span­ish names. An Ir­ish monk circa AD 800 quotes Liam Nee­son in Taken. A dress­maker at the court of At­tila the Hun makes dyes out of items from the Nin­tendo game Zelda:

Breath of the Wild: “for the red I had used for Abrila’s dress, I em­ployed spicy pep­per, the tail of the red lizal­fos and four Hylian shrooms.”

This would make for a nice mid­dle­brow fable – funny when its hu­mour is less ob­vi­ous, grip­ping and read­able where not choked by un­sub­tle tech­nique – and that would be that. But A Trav­eller has what one of its his­tor­i­cal celebrity walk-ons would call “vault­ing am­bi­tion”. Boyne’s 12th novel for adults feels in­flu­enced by Su­san Barker’s The In­car­na­tions or some­thing by David Mitchell, but the scope is yet wider.

The nar­ra­tors are them­selves re­spon­si­ble for some of the finest art­works ever cre­ated, yet dis­play scant artis­tic sen­si­bil­ity as sto­ry­tellers. The best-sell­ing au­thor, speak­ing through his var­i­ous con­duits, has a se­ri­ally un­mu­si­cal voice. “‘So – for­give me – but what is the King of Scot­land do­ing in an inn in the Low Coun­tries?’” (In an inn in?!)

Be­sides the tru­ism that hu­man ex­pe­ri­ences and feel­ings are im­mutable, cur­sory work seems to have been put into imag­in­ing how a per­son from this or that pe­riod might have ex­pe­ri­enced or felt them, be­yond lip-ser­vice paid to shift­ing at­ti­tudes about gen­der, sex­u­al­ity, slav­ery and colo­nial­ism. The tex­ture of the past is evoked al­most ex­clu­sively through height­ened for­mal­ity and long-winded re­dun­dancy.

In­stead of killing, char­ac­ters are “en­gaged in san­guineous mis­ad­ven­tures”. Un­less might be swapped for “lest”, face for “vis­age”. A Vik­ing berserker rips some­one “limb from limb in a great fury of bel­li­cose an­tag­o­nism”. To lose one’s vir­gin­ity is “to com­mit the act that de­fines the border be­tween child­hood and adult­hood”. As if brevity was a fu­ture in­ven­tion to which Gauls, Jin Dy­nasty Chi­nese or even the Ro­mans them­selves didn’t also have re­course.

With­out the pre­ci­sion and at­ten­tion to lan­guage that was also a hall­mark of such for­mal­ity in speak­ers from pre­vi­ous ages, we are left sim­ply with laboured speech. Good old-fash­ioned his­tor­i­calese. It’s hard even to get be­hind a well-mean­ing, spir­ited pas­tiche set in Shake­speare’s Lon­don (“ver­ily”, “sooth”, etc). The char­ac­ters them­selves don’t seem to know what they mean: “‘It is a play,’ I replied. ‘No more, no less than that. But it has, I hope, a deal of ex­cite­ment and ad­ven­ture within its scenery.’”

Mak­ing our way, fi­nally, to the present day, we re­alise that this prose is for keeps. An Amer­i­can in 2016, await­ing the elec­tion re­sult, mis­guid­edly looks for­ward to Trump be­ing “despatched back to that gaudy mon­u­ment to bad taste that he’d con­structed on Fifth Av­enue, where he could blind him­self with his grotesque golden pil­lars”.

I know this much: things that sur­round char­ac­ters may change, but bad writ­ing stays the same.

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