Had to read in school. I still remember one sentence that struck me then. It wasn't as offensive as others of his that I had to read turned out to be....moreHad to read in school. I still remember one sentence that struck me then. It wasn't as offensive as others of his that I had to read turned out to be. So, two stars. (less)
I liked the sentiments -- it was for the poor, the oppressed and every medieval underdog -- but the execution wasn't up to scratch. The very first sce...moreI liked the sentiments -- it was for the poor, the oppressed and every medieval underdog -- but the execution wasn't up to scratch. The very first scene was shockingly stock, but it's better than that... It gathers les miserables, touchingly, and runs through the horrors of the times, most of which happen to our hero. However, I stopped about halfway. (less)
I undertook this because it’s set on the Muslim side of the Crusades. Mostly in Crusades fiction we get only a cursory glimpse of the societies I’m mo...moreI undertook this because it’s set on the Muslim side of the Crusades. Mostly in Crusades fiction we get only a cursory glimpse of the societies I’m more interested in and that’s frustrating. Here it’s the Franj who are only seen from the inside now and then. So, I loved the setting straight away, as we are plunged into Bedu tents, where the adventure starts. I’d call this an adventure, more than a war story. With Bilal we spend our time in Salah ad-Din’s camp, but with Khalidah we travel through Persia to the Hindu Kush, in search of the legendary Qaf.
I guess it isn’t straight hf, since she makes up the land of Qaf – as she tells us in her note, from Pashtun, Kalash, Mongolian and Tibetan cultures. Then again I might argue that Hidden Lands proliferated in the time and place – from Prester John to Shambala. The Crusaders expected Prester John from these parts... here it’s the Jinn who turn out to be not demon desert creatures but a human force who come in aid of Salah ad-Din.
The adventure is increasingly thoughtful, with heroism and idealism sadly misguided, and victory proved sickening. For an end to crusades, she puts on the title page, and she doesn’t write to excite.
It’s nicely written, with lovely description. I felt it fell into stockness now and then. Khalidah’s love story is quite low-key, but when it is at the fore, she seems to drop five years in age. Perhaps you do. Bilal’s was more overt, and boy-meets-boy – the Sultan’s son (a sixth son and unimportant). This one was a bit soppy for me. However, boy-boy wasn’t uncommon and you don’t find it often in the fiction – like Crusades from the Muslim side.
Khalidah is an independent sort who fights. So do the girls of Qaf. I see people shake their heads at girls who fight as our 20th or 21st century intrusions, and so, I’m going to put this in the witness box: The Adventures of Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan: An Arab Folk Epic. It says at least there’s nothing modern about the love of such stories.
It’s terrific to have this novel, amidst your usual Crusades fare. For me there were rougher patches, for which I gave four stars.
Usually it’s hard to tell – do I blame the translation or the original? – but I was fairly certain here. It read a...moreShot in the foot by its translation.
Usually it’s hard to tell – do I blame the translation or the original? – but I was fairly certain here. It read awfully. It’s written in an impressionistic way, and my guess is that the original uses a creative grammar... I’m the first to support creative grammar in fiction, believe me, because people don’t talk or think in correct English. However, whatever artistic effects were meant, the translation only looks like bad grammar, and bad sense, and non-consecutive thought from sentence to sentence that no doubt had a point. The style is one of severe brevity – where every sentence has a point. I can just imagine how this might work in the original. I can even imagine a psychological acuity in the original. Waving from the other side of the bridge. Maybe not, though – I’m trying to read into this what there might be.
I cannot recommend this, except to Richard 1 completists. I’d have liked to – I bought it blind (there’s no ‘look inside’ function) simply to give a neglected book a chance. Didn’t pay off in this case.
It’s a dark Richard: a fanatic who comes to doubt, a lame human life. Sounds intriguing. Try it in Norwegian, if you can. (less)
It was knocking on the door of greatness. The beginning was staggering, and I was floored by the musical...moreI can only tell you my experience of the book.
It was knocking on the door of greatness. The beginning was staggering, and I was floored by the musicality of its sentences, its startling imagery, and the depth of thought that made these ancient Egyptians remind me, as others before me, of aliens in a science fiction novel – that is, the past is an alien world. I was having an encounter with this novel, like you have with extraterrestials or great beasts. This reached its pitch with the Battle of Kadesh, whose inspirations were the Old Testament and the Iliad, and where Mailer, in the whole chapter devoted to the battle, gives his sentences the rush and rhythm of chariot wheels. Awesome battle scene.
So far, with me, he hadn’t put a foot wrong. Thomas Mann went wrong in Egypt with the ornate style, for me: I loved his first Joseph books but in Egypt I sank into the sands of his Biblical loquacity. But Mailer, as Old Testamenty as he, hadn’t spent a word too much, he was music to my ears. Then I hit the Book of Queens. It was atrocious, and the novel never clawed up from that low – until perhaps the last five pages.
As for the sex content. In the parts I admired, I didn’t feel it was gratuitous or ill-done. I’ll thank him for his lessons in unhealthy psychology. Once I read a book – which I won’t even link to, because I hated the book and thought it bad history – that told me how common in the ancient world was war rape, man to man: as a further vanquishment of a defeated enemy. So, there’s much oneupmanship in here, where they use such methods to humiliate and see who’s ahead of who. It’s effing unhealthy, like I say; nevertheless, when I read that aforementioned nonfiction I was disturbed and disgusted, whereas Mailer doesn’t set out to disturb and disgust me and he didn’t. When he has a humiliate-the-captive scene entirely from the point of view of the unapologetic perpetrator, I felt I was given insight, in the way fiction can.
None of what I’ve just said goes for the latter part of the book, where sex is stupid, gratuitous and features women. I had already noticed that he never has women raped. Is that pushing it, even for him? I had to wonder. But in these stretches you soon notice every single woman is a sex addict, and... spare me. It’s worse than I can say. The music is lost too, since he’s thrown discipline to the winds; and the Egyptians aren’t aliens now, they live in your closest daytime soap.
He took ten years to write this, as he lets us know at the end. Maybe he had a brain explosion along the way. (less)
Hard one to rate. It’s in three parts, and my interest was certainly partitioned. Let’s go part by part.
I was transfixed in part one, which is heavy...moreHard one to rate. It’s in three parts, and my interest was certainly partitioned. Let’s go part by part.
I was transfixed in part one, which is heavy on the ethnography. Be warned, this isn’t the story of a girl so much as the story of her people. Her home society is at an old crossroads: her kin have short Mongol noses or Greek ones they ascribe to Alexander. They are Lamaist, but the lama merges with the shaman and the spirits and rites of several religions mingle in their observances. They call themselves the Tunshan and there are two hundred tents of them left. They trace descent from Sigi Qutuqu (Qutuqtu), foster-brother of Temujin from the far east steppe. With Temujin’s conquest army in the Altai Mountains Sigi looks behind and ahead: is the steppe greener on the other side? Later we see Tamerlane and Toqtamish, the wars with the Oirats. There is a period of women in charge of the tribe because the men have killed themselves off. These tales are the oral history of Naja’s people, transcribed into the novel. Interspersed with this is that nomad girl transplanted – inexplicably to her, and without much explanation to us, either, at first – into a postwar German city. Her discomforts with life in a house are finely imagined, and informed. Whether in her camp life or in this alien environment, description of her experience is visceral. I felt fully entered into this little girl. If you are wary of a child protagonist – I myself am – the telling of the child’s experiences is intensely adult. I dare say the disorientations of the narrative can seem as blown-about as that tumbleweed of the title, but just read and don’t worry.
In part two I met the Turkestan Battalion, with Naja’s father a volunteer for Hitler because of what Stalin had done with the tribes. This had its own ethnographic flavour, with the German army’s management of these local soliders. It then becomes a story of POWs, German and Italian.
Part three had too much modernity for me, with this young woman employed in the telegraph exchange, and less and less of her old home. I only stopped for passages like this: Then, to make me feel better, she said, ‘Don’t be upset. With that nose everyone’s bound to think you’re a Mongol.’ She actually said ‘think you’re a Mongol’ as if I were not really one, and as if the fact of being taken for a Mongol, or the very insinuation that I was one, could constitute an insult.
Your interests may be very different. I get the impression that the war and post-war periods are also studiously detailed, but I skimmed too much to go above three stars. (less)
“For Boiardo human freedom was epitomized by the imaginary wanderings of Charlemagne’s paladins across the globe in the company of non-European and n...more “For Boiardo human freedom was epitomized by the imaginary wanderings of Charlemagne’s paladins across the globe in the company of non-European and non-Christian knights and ladies who often shared their chivalric ideals.”
What an open-minded human being was Matteo Maria Boiardo. I come away from this book with a hugely upscaled admiration for him – and with Ariosto possibly spoilt. Before, I loved them both indiscriminately. I’m one of these the author complains of, who blur the two Orlando poems – Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato, continued by Ariosto in Orlando Furioso. Not after her book, which contrasts their “distinct and opposing visions of the world.”
The world beyond Europe. I was always entranced by how far these guys travel – to the ends of Asia – and I’ve wondered about the poets’ knowledge of the world, what material they had to concoct their romances from, and how they thought of the foreign. Because I was struck in particular by Boiardo’s Agricane, who has a definite Mongol lineage and lives at the furthest reaches of the world, and is a gorgeous figure even his enemy likes. More on him at the end of this review.
Knights were never so errant as in these Italian cadenzas on the stern old story of Charlemagne’s Roland. The Song of Roland, of course, pits Christians against Saracens, but Boiardo overturns every Carolingian convention, in that arena: “his knights and damsels originate from every corner of the globe... Newly invented Asian, African and Middle Eastern characters join traditional Carolingian figures in embodying a code of chivalry that transcends national, religious, ethnic and linguistic barriers.” Brandimarte, “representative of a truly universal knighthood,” grew up in Castle Wild in the vicinity of Samarkand, a city suggestive to Boiardo’s original audience of “a crossroads of various civilizations in the East.” Again and again his large cast displays “a universal chivalric code indifferent to religious creed.”
He inserts into his stories details that keep in our minds the shared “classical cultural heritage” of Christianity and Islam, through which they can talk to each other, on exemplars from history and legend – Alexander and Hector – on science and philosophy, Greek and Arab. He uses history. Behind Rugiero, who practices an “unconditional chivalry” – and, as Cavallo notes, is a North African man desired by a French woman – stands Rigieri or Roger I and II, Italo-Normans whose “disinterested courtesy” was directed towards Muslims, too. While in Syria, Boiardo’s Noradino is named for Nur ad-Din, who along with his successor Saladin was in chivalric, courteous odour even among Crusaders. In the well-governed realm of Noradino, “although Orlando is not the first knight to pass through Syria in a chivalric narrative, he is quite possibly the first ever to find this region at peace.” Yes, Boiardo pictures a Middle East under Saracen government and a haven of “safety and harmony” where Christians can mingle with their Muslim peers and enjoy the courtly sports. At this point you may want to award Matteo Maria Boiardo the Nobel Peace Prize. Conversions? They happen in his poem, but seldom. They are not sought after nor presented as a solution for the future – not even a wish. They are voluntary, and proselytizing is seen to never work. They are also historical: they are set in Armenia or among the Mongols and have a real-world reason. It’s far from the ahistorical fantasies of mass conversion usual in chivalric romance, where a Muslim once beaten by a Christian knight curses his God and converts on the spot.
And Ariosto? I’ve preferred to talk about Boiardo. Character by character she contrasts them, and story by story, whereby Ariosto inverts Boiardo’s meanings. Boiardo has a tale to suggest that knowledge of the foreign, even at a risk, has potential gains; Ariosto has a tale, with echoes of Boiardo’s, to warn against intimacy with the foreign. When Boiardo alludes to Crusades he does so “in a way that expressly distances his poem from the ideology typical of the Carolingian romances,” but Ariosto works his plot around to a crusading ideology – and indeed calls for a new crusade. Boiardo’s interfaith love affairs, optimistic in him, come to a bad end in Ariosto or are rewritten to eliminate the cross-culture. There is a “systematic degradation of Saracen heroes.” Perhaps his worst is what he does with Marphisa, a queen of the unspecified East and a worldwide knight errant. In Boiardo she is committed to chivalric values and absolutely blind to religious or cultural difference; by the time Ariosto is done with her she’s a convert and a “fanatical miles Christi” who only wants to slay Saracens. Let this stand for Ariosto’s other “degradations” of Asian and African characters, for he gives the treatment to each and every one. While I’m on women, though, I’ll mention the difference in Angelicas. In Boiardo, Angelica of Cathay is a self-confident world-traveller of undiminished “agency” who always has the upper hand in situations; in Ariosto she is a pursued victim in close and sexy scrapes with ravishment.
I was afraid, as I read this book, that I’ve forever lost my innocence on Ariosto. A pity if I can’t forget this and enjoy him, because as C.S. Lewis said, “When you are tired of Ariosto, you must be tired of the world.” Last night I finished this work of criticism and I am tired of Ariosto. It won’t last. I guess it’s Boiardo who makes him look bad, because what do you expect from romances of Charlemagne? You don’t expect Boiardo. – In case you haven’t read Boiardo and suspect from this description he’s programmatic or no fun, he’s the one who promises us “the biggest, most stupendous war/Attempted yet in prose or verse.” He loves overreachers – along the lines of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. It’s just that they are never motivated by religion. Characters aren’t judged on ethnicity or faith, simple as that: now go have adventures.
I’ve kept til last Agricane, the king of Tartary. I’ve been in love with him from way back, and why not? Orlando adores him too. A few years ago when I got my hands on the full translation of Boiardo I paid him special attention because I now research Mongol history. How Mongol is he? Deliberately Mongol, says Cavallo, with more historical references than the girl from Cathay or Gradasso of Sericana (maritime China). Romances simplify the world into a Christian/Saracen division, but Agricane is never called a Saracen or mentions Muhammad – he calls on the sun, known as a Mongol divinity, and his Tartary flies Mongol flags. When Agricane makes a big noise about how he despises to profit by his enemy’s traitor, I had to wonder whether this is a reminiscence of Genghis Khan, who was famous for the same. Cavallo says yes. She finds significant, in the state of the world Boiardo paints, that in the Mongols’ wars religion was absent as a motivation. She sees the progress of Mongol history followed in the career of Agricane’s son, with changes that “align” him with Ogodei.
I am convinced by her arguments, about Boiardo’s conscious use of Mongol history. However, I have to say I found an inadequacy in the sources she consults on that history. I thought odd that she should have John Man as a main informant, because his is a popular history. Why not, in a book such as this, use an academic one? I was more startled when, on the question of Genghis Khan’s religious tolerance, she went to Robert Silverberg for information. The science fiction writer, who did a history of Prester John, and is quoted in the notes: “Genghis himself had no strong religious convictions but was content to observe the simple pagan shamanism of his forefathers.” This exhibits a poor understanding, since of course, one can have strong religious convictions within the indigenous religion of the Mongols. I hate to find fault here, because Cavallo is forward-thinking and not inclined to the dismissive attitudes implicit in the Silverberg quote. It’s a shame she hasn’t explored more widely in Mongol scholarship. What else, then, might she have spotted in Boiardo? She makes little mistakes: Khublai’s mother wasn’t a convert but came from a Nestorian Christian steppe people. As far as I can see, these do not mar her argument. Yet they must in a sense weaken the book. I was disturbed further when, on the subject of Prester John, she rests entirely on the Robert Silverberg, published in 1972. And on the ethnicity of Mamelukes, her text was so brief as to be almost misleading.
Still, it’s not easy to span the world, in the wake of Boiardo’s knights, and scholarship on these romances has neglected the view beyond Europe. Cavallo’s book, I understand, boasts several firsts. It’s been an exciting event for me, who never dared hope I’d find a person to tell me about the links between Agricane and Genghis Khan. (less)
I'm one of the few who think Dickens' historical novel, Tale of Two Cities, lesser than those that take place in his own stree...moreTried twice and failed.
I'm one of the few who think Dickens' historical novel, Tale of Two Cities, lesser than those that take place in his own streets. This is George Eliot's single historical venture and I don't think she manages to be everything she is, in a past setting. She's distracted by the exotic. To be picturesque is enough. Romola is a similar kind of woman to Dorothea (although a more reluctant intellectual) but is no Dorothea, who came alive on page one. I can't stand another scene with her 'simple' peasant girl.
It seems I only like half of George Eliot's work. Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, Felix Holt. But not Mill on the Floss, and not this. (less)
Gets better and better as it goes along, until I nearly tore out my hair when we come to an abrupt stop, just as he works up to ----
Most loved for his...moreGets better and better as it goes along, until I nearly tore out my hair when we come to an abrupt stop, just as he works up to ----
Most loved for his authorial voice. Also later parts of the story: the siege for instance, where he dared to be comic and hideously real. And his joke rhymes: I can't think of a rhyme for this, so have... a ludicrous one. Byron just bursts out in this poem.
I guess he turned Don Juan upside-down after Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis? (less)