Tuesday, September 07, 2021

the last book I read

The Pope's Rhinoceros
by Lawrence Norfolk.

It's not easy being Pope. Never mind getting paintings done properly, there is the boredom. I mean, once you've said Mass a couple of times and performed a couple of other incomprehensible rituals in St. Peter's Square you've got the whole rest of the day to fill, and even hearing the petitions of a few malodorous peasants and reading through the gossip section of Heat a few times probably leaves a few dead hours. And you can't goof off on the internet for a bit because it's the early 16th century and it hasn't been invented yet.

So why not come up with some absurd whim for some desperate sycophant to move heaven and earth to try to fulfil? I mean, in the unlikely event that they succeed you'll probably have forgotten all about it, but it provides a bit of amusement. What about one of these new rhinoceroses that we've been hearing about? I mean, nobody really knows what they look like, but they're big and they're exotic and might provide some amusement. 

Let us now head away from Rome to somewhere slightly less hospitable: the island of Usedom, off the northern coast of mainland Europe on what is now the border between Germany and Poland. Two men are engaged in an odd ritual, the larger man repeatedly lowering the smaller man into the sea in a barrel. When - inevitably - it turns out that the makeshift tar-and-leather waterproofing isn't quite as effective as they'd hoped, they are rescued by some members of an odd order of monks who it turns out live in a crumbling monastery on a nearby clifftop, bits of which keep sliding off into the sea. It further turns out that the two men were doing something related to the remains of the lost city of Vineta, which supposedly previously occupied the clifftop now precariously occupied by the monastery and at some point in the past slid beneath the waves. 

But there's no time to dwell on that, as it is decided that the monks must make a pilgrimage to Rome and petition the Pope (this particular one is a lightly fictionalised Leo X) for something or other (presumably a new and better church). That's no mean feat from the shores of the Baltic, and the party (comprising the monks and Salvestro and Bernardo, the Little and Large team) has a series of crazy adventures traversing Europe before they reach Rome.

But there's no time to dwell on that either, as we're in Rome, the greatest city on Earth. You don't just wander up to the Pope and strike up a conversation, though, there is a whole series of preliminary approaches to be made and a lot of waiting around to do for the right moment to present itself. Meanwhile Salvestro and Bernardo, less inclined to silent contemplation and asceticism, need to find some paying work, and as luck would have it a crew is being sought for a sea voyage to Africa to locate a rhinoceros for the Pope, because, you know, apparently he wants one. 

Certain factions in Rome don't really want the mission to succeed, though, which is partly why Salvestro and Bernardo have been chosen, having precisely zero nautical experience. Moreover the ship is barely seaworthy and the captain is a hopeless drunk. But, against all the odds, they arrive in West Africa. A few problems arise, though: firstly there is a rival expedition also out to secure the prize of the rhinoceros (and, more importantly, the gratitude and favour of the Pope), secondly the land is already inhabited by some native tribes that aren't necessarily inclined to be either welcoming or helpful, and thirdly there isn't a convenient queue of rhinoceroses docilely waiting to be herded into the cage that's been prepared. 

Salvestro's expedition is fortunate to have with them a young woman from the area, previously kidnapped and enslaved in Rome, who can at least converse with the natives. And it turns out that there is some sort of quest-within-a-quest that the expedition members who have made it ashore need to do, involving, as all jungle-based quests do, a mysterious and forbidden lost city that they must enter, but which some of them may not leave. 

Even at the end of that they don't just get a handshake and a "right, here's your rhinoceros"; instead they are lashed to a raft and set adrift down a large river (presumably the Niger) towards the sea. At some point subsequent to this they are intercepted by the rival expedition and brought aboard (along with the caged rhinoceros which was also on the raft). Next minute, we're on some Italian shoreline as various bodies and fragments of wreckage wash up, including Salvestro, who is the only survivor.

And so we return to Rome, as the Pope's entourage prepare to deliver a great spectacle, the climax of which will reveal the legendary rhinoceros, which, thanks to Salvestro, has been delivered as promised. I mean, admittedly, it's not as fresh, nor indeed alive, as one might perhaps hope, and its innards have been scooped out and replaced with a couple of hundredweight of surplus bread rolls, but it's definitely there. Following this slightly farcical end to the spectacle Salvestro finds himself sitting next to the Pope at the subsequent feast, and therefore in a position to witness the Pope finally confronting some consequences for his involvement (as plain old Lorenzo de Medici) in the brutal sack of Prato some years earlier.

The first and most obvious thing about The Pope's Rhinoceros is its formidable size: 753 pages, 39 lines per page, general resemblance to a house-brick. And when you finally gird up to launch into reading it, the first chapter starts at the very beginning with a partial geological history of Northern Europe, which is a bit daunting, although it doesn't go on as long as you fear it might. Once Salvestro and Bernardo get involved in the story things pick up quite a bit, and they provide the hook of actual human interest that carries the reader through the great sweep of history that follows, the monks' motivations being a bit difficult to fathom. There is a strong echo of Of Mice And Men's George and Lennie in Salvestro and Bernardo, with some dark allusions to Bernardo doing Bad Things (possibly accidentally, possibly not) to children in the past.
This is another book from my Projects list, where it got filed because of its length and perceived density and demandingness. I've actually done pretty well with knocking off items from this list during lockdown, The Pope's Rhinoceros being the fourth after House Of Leaves, Lanark and Moby-Dick. Like all three of its predecessors it's actually a good deal easier to read than you might imagine; that said it is also absurdly long and features an absurd amount of digression on a wide range of topics which is clearly the result of an absurd and impressive amount of research. Whether all of it is strictly necessary is another matter. And while the story being told here is more easily followed than in the shorter In The Shape Of A Boar (the only other Norfolk I've read, and mentioned briefly in the Lanark review) certain things still aren't very clear even at the end, after 753 pages: what specifically was Salvestro hoping to achieve with the barrel-on-a-rope routine? what exactly happened at Prato, and what was the Pope's role? is little Amalia some sort of avenging angel sent to claim the Pope's mortal soul, or just a slightly odd little girl? 

Usedom, Leo X, the sack of Prato, the legend of Vineta and some of the other historical stuff mentioned in the novel are (or were) real things - slightly more surprisingly the rhinoceros stuff is based on a real story as well, that of a real ship carrying a real rhinoceros (though that one was supposedly from India) which sank off the Italian coast in 1516. This was the rhinoceros that was supposedly the inspiration for Albrecht Dürer's famous (and famously anatomically inaccurate) woodcut

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