A beautiful statue of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi.
Goddess Lakshmi is, in a sense, the eastern equivalent of Aphrodite/Venus, for she is said to have emerged from the ocean, riding on a lotus.
‘Christians? You put yourself on a level with them, you who are of Christian birth? You call them Christians, these filthy palace Saracens that claim to be converted to our faith and secretly continue to practise their own?’
‘I have seen no evidence of this,’ I said, but he did not hear me or showed no sign of doing so.
‘Once a Saracen, always a Saracen, it is in their blood,’ he said. His eyes had a staring look now, that famished smile had gone, and with it all pretence of benevolent interest in me. He leaned forward across the table, bringing his face close to mine. ‘It is in their corrupted blood,’ he said, ‘and they will corrupt our blood with it if we allow them. […] Tell me, Thurstan, what does Christendom mean to you?’
‘It is the term we use for those regions where our Roman faith is predominant.’
‘That is all it signifies to you? This great spread of our faith no more than a matter of geography? I will tell you what Christendom is. Christendom is the universal Christian Church, the universal Christian society. Christendom is a mighty host that is destined to bring the world under its sway.’
An unusual but fascinating setting: the court of the Norman King Roger of Sicily. Following the failure of the great army of the Second Crusade at Damascus, Sicily – and the whole of southern Italy and the eastern Mediterranean – seethes with unrest. Palermo, with its Muslims and Jews, its Byzantine Christians and its Roman Christians, seems a kind of melting-pot, symbolic of the rest of the region. King Roger, who has sworn to maintain equality between the races and creeds, is visibly failing to do so as his Norman courtiers seize more and more power and property for themselves at the expense of the rest.
In the middle of all this, a young Anglo-Norman called Thurstan Beauchamp works under a Muslim, Yusuf, the minister responsible for the Diwan al-tahqiq al-ma’mur, the Diwan of Control (or Diwan of Secrets) – and dreams of the knighthood and the life that should have been his, would have been his if his father had not entered a Cistercian monastery and given all his lands and property to the Cistercian Order, thereby leaving his son unable to pursue his training. Now, under Yusuf, Thurstan is officially responsible for recruiting and organising entertainers (dancers, singers) for the royal court, but in fact much of his work is on the secret side, carrying out confidential missions for Yusuf.
All this comes together as he sets out for Bari (a port on the east coast of Italy) to meet a Serbian emissary and deliver a message, but, while there, he falls under the spell of a penniless gypsy dancer, Nesrin, (who, after the start given to her by Thurstan in Palermo, becomes famous throughout the courts of Europe – she’s the one who, later, has a ruby in her navel “that glowed as she danced”). And then, quite by chance, he meets his childhood sweetheart, Lady Alicia, now a young widow and recently returned from Jerusalem.
A love story, yes. But Thurstan has already been offered a substantial bribe if he will accuse Yusuf of attempting to make him a convert to Islam, and thus bring about Yusuf’s downfall. He, of course, refused. But when Alicia is taken prisoner, and her release – her very life – depends on Thurstan bearing false witness against Yusuf, his long-time friend and mentor – what is he to do? Is honour the most important thing for him? And the consolation of Nesrin the dancer? Or should he accept the knighthood and land he is offered, and the hand of Alicia?
A marvellous story, and beautifully written, as one would expect from Barry Unsworth, thrice shortlisted for the Booker Prize and once the winner. But don’t expect another Morality Play: Barry Unsworth is not one to repeat himself, and this book, its setting and its hero are as different as A Tale of Two Cities is from Hard Times.
This is by any standards a perfect example of the classic detective story: a tough, cynical investigator straight off the mean streets of Thebes, a setting – Akhetaten, Egypt, 1800 BC – that is almost mythical in its connotations, and a villain and heroine who make their counterparts in most other books seem insipid by comparison and hardly worth bothering with at all.
Akhetaten is the city of Akhenaten, the pharaoh who attempted to reform the complex Egyptian religious system and introduce monotheism by imposing on all the worship of one god, the Aten, symbolised by the sun. Akhetaten, the new capital, was built out in the desert, far away far away from the other great cities of Egypt: and this was its weakness. It became something of a retreat from reality, and Akhenaten, his mind entirely on his religion, gradually lost control of what was, at the time, the greatest kingdom (and greatest empire) in the world.
Then Nefertiti, the Queen, disappears, and it is Rahotep’s job to find her – or her dead body and the name of her murderer. He has only ten days before a great festival at which she must be present; if he fails, Akhenaten tells him, he will die a horrible death, and his wife and children back in Thebes will die with him. But he is a stranger in Akhetaten: where can he start and who can he trust?
Nick Drake’s Nefertiti is the most convincing recreation I know of the queen whose beauty shines down through the millennia. She is Nefertiti to me now.
And the villain? Read it and see. There are some evil men involved and the author keeps the reader guessing, so I must too.
The best mystery set in ancient Egypt since Agatha Christie’s Death Comes As The End.
The world into which François Villon was born in 1431 was one of extreme contrasts. On 30 May Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in the market square of Rouen. In the same year the newly crowned French king, Louis VII, was hiding from his enemies, shifting from castle to penniless castle. In December the nine-year-old English king, Henry VI, in cloth of gold on a white charger, rode triumphantly into Paris with his gorgeously apparelled retinue, the boy ‘staring for a long time’ at three lovely, naked girls representing mermaids in the fountain of St Dennis. Probably in the same year, but on the other side of the city, François Villon was born in the slums and alleys near the rue St Jacques.
The city was packed because the passage of army after army had left the countryside bare, anything that could be eaten eaten, anything that could be burnt burnt (and anyone who could be raped raped). One of the families taking refuge in the city was that of François Villon, but his father died leaving the family in extreme poverty when the poet was still only a child. That he received an education at all seems to have been due to the lucky chance that he would accompany his devout mother to church and in that way came to the attention of the priest, Guillaume de Villon, who later, probably in 1438, adopted the boy.
But, as Aubrey Burl comments, “there is a wise observation that an urchin can be taken out of the slums but the slums cannot be taken out of the urchin.” And Villon remained all his life a child of – and the poet of – the slums.
Burl is good on everything, but he is particularly good on the poetry. He begins by pointing out that it is much easier to write about Villon now than it used to be. “Censorship has relaxed. Earlier any faithful tranlation was unprintable.” As evidence, he translates for us, in a way that Swinburne was quite unable to in the late nineteenth century, some stanzas from La Vieille Regrettant le Temps de sa Jeunesse (the regret for her lost youth by the ageing but once beautiful mistress of a nobleman), and notes that “François Villon was never mealy-mouthed and he wrote as his old woman, the former courtesan, might have spoken.”
Long arms and groping fingers sly,
Fine shapely shoulders, and the round
Full breasts and heaving hips that fly
Smooth, slick and firm in thrust and pound
Against the place where we were bound.
Above spread loins my pulsing cunt
Between its gripping thighs was crowned
With gardened curls across its front.
But this is where our beauty’s sent,
Scrawny arms, hands weak and sick,
Crooked back and shoulders bent.
My flabby tits? Won’t stir a prick.
My arse the same. To tempt a dick,
My cunt? No hope! As for my thighs
Each one just skin, dry bone, a stick,
A pock-marked sausage. Beauty dies.
Yes, beauty dies – a favourite theme of Villon’s and one he frequently returns to, as in the quite different and very beautiful Ballades des Temps Jadis, in which he asks where all the fair women of the past are and concludes each stanza with the line, “But where are the snows of yesteryear?”
Villon lived and died surrounded by death, in a world in which “for the penniless, the only affordable entertainment was a public execution”. “He had elegiac eyes,” says Burl, in a memorable phrase. Villon recorded, like any great poet – or painter – the world he knew.
By the time you finish this book, that world, the Paris of the late Middle Ages and the danse macabre, is home, and François Villon is family.
For this, I traveled an hour through
snow and Christmas traffic –
Latte-sipping, graduate program poets
and an uncomfortable chair.
An earnest young man stands,
delivers his vision of innocence.
A childhood peopled with grandfathers
hunting for arrowheads and fossils
in dry creek beds in Connecticut
or Kentucky – I can’t remember which –
my attention taken by her, his girl.
Adoring, yet cool, in her smart girl glasses,
black hair wound tight as watch springs,
and those legs, long enough
to hold your shoulders like a vise.
He now tells us he is a tree –
imagining his leafy fingers
outstretched to the sky –
while I imagine mine
reaching under her blouse.
I ask myself why he isn’t writing about her?
As he tells how his branches scrape the water
her branches scraping my back,
The wind sings to him,
She nearly breaks my eardrum
with her screaming.
He tastes the summer rain
I taste blood where she’s
bitten my lower lip.
Now he’s in a schoolroom
in Indiana or Illinois,
his obsession with geography brings
me back to earth and the question
of why doesn’t he write about her?
But, he will – someday – the day she leaves him
and every day after that
when she steps out of his
vision of innocence and
into someone’s a little less so.
I haled me a woman from the street,
Shameless, but oh so fair!
I bade her sit in the model’s seat
And I painted her sitting there.
I hid all trace of her heart unclean;
I painted a babe at her breast;
I painted her as she might have been
If the Worst had been the Best.
She laughed at my picture and went away.
Then came, with a knowing nod,
A connoisseur, and I heard him say,
“‘Tis Mary, the Mother of God.”
So I painted a halo round her hair,
And I sold her and took my fee,
And she hangs in the church of Saint Hillaire,
Where you and all may see.