The Brotherhood of Book Hunters by Raphaël Jerusalmy, tr. Howard Curtis

Title: The Brotherhood of Book Hunters
Author:   Raphaël Jerusalmy
Translator:   Howard Curtis
Publisher: Europa Editions, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 60945 230 8

The eighteenth century romance novel tradition with its lush descriptions of landscapes and settings is  just one of  the many threads Raphaël Jerusalmy weaves into a novel which features the 15th century French poet and rogue Francois Villon, a real-life figure with a shadowy historical record.  Add to this the Medici family, a journey to the Holy Land and a Jewish conspiracy as fanciful and ambitious as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (minus the anti-semitism) and you’ll begin to get a sense of the scope of the author’s vision.

Slowly advancing across the still burning scrubland, through ravines over which darkness was spreading, Djanoush at last reached a promontory from which the outline of the lake could be seen in the distance. His traveling companions gazed down at the fabled landscape in silence. A sparrow hawk hovered, describing broad circles, weaving his flight in the invisible weft of the sky, patrolling the sheet of water in search of prey. The Sea of Kinnereth, as the Hebrews called it, stretched as far as the horizon, lined with wild rushes and willows. The white domes of Tiberias glittered on the western shore. To the east, the grim mass of the Golan rose into the clouds, covering the tranquil waters with its threatening shadow. Opposite, in the distance, where the haze of the lake gave way to a sand-filled mist, Judea began.

The Brotherhood of Book Hunters is a  historical adventure story in the style of Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson or James Fenimore Cooper. Or, if we’re looking for more contemporary comparisons, with Michael Chabon’s 2007 novella Gentlemen of the Road, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas and, in a roundabout way, the short stories of the sci-fi/fantasy writer Fritz Lieber will do nicely. The basics of what ultimately grows into a rather complicated plot are as follows: François Villon is approached in prison by the agents of Louis XI.  The French King wishes to shift the power between himself and the Vatican by encouraging the circulation of pamphlets challenging the dogma of the Catholic Church. To this end he tasks Villon with convincing printers & booksellers from across Europe to set up their shops in Paris. And once that is accomplished he sends Villon – accompanied by the poet’s friend Colin da Cayeux (Fafhrd to Villon’s Gray Mouser) – to the Holy Land on a mission to acquire rare manuscripts from the time of Christ which are guaranteed to undermine the Pope’s authority once distributed among the masses.

What the King & Villon do not realize is that more people are involved in this game of Renaissance intrigue than they know. The Medici family, backed by a shadowy organization known as the Brotherhood of Book Hunters, have their own plans for poor Villon. And no one seems to consider the possibility that Villon may just have a few plans of his own.

“What good wind brings you to the Holy Land, Master Villon?”

“Contrary winds. Zephyrs of escape and trade winds of fortune.”

Raphaël Jerusalmy has a true gift for sprawling scenic landscapes and carefully lit interiors – in this way he is the novelistic equivalent to the director John Ford.  Often he spends more time on the particulars of a room than the people in it, leaving his characters emotions and motivations opaque through much of the book. There’s a noticeable absence of internal dialogue in the pages of The Brotherhood…, particularly among the main characters.  This is a marked and noticeable contrast to the Franzen-style psychoanalytical navel gazing frequently found in contemporary literary fiction.  But Jerusalmy seems to be after something else entirely. His prose is performative, delivering moments of deliciously decadent melodrama.  Take for example the passage below in which Colin de Cayeux dramatically enters a tavern, summoned there by Villon.

The door of the tavern opened suddenly, blown inward by a gust of wind. Spray and hail crashed onto the flagstones, sprinkling the sawdust and the straw. The dogs growled, the drinkers bellowed, the cats threw themselves under the tables. Their shadows swayed in the red light of the newly fanned flames of the hearth. Threats and curses rang out. Framed in the doorway, dripping with rain, a man stood silhouetted against the whiteness of the hail. He was motionless for a moment, ignoring the tumult. A black velvet cloak floated around his shoulders like beating wings. Only two things were visible on this untimely specter: a wan smile and, below it, the milky reflection of a knife.

Cue the sinister music.

The Brotherhood of Book Hunters was released in English by Europa Editions in 2014, the second of Jerusalmy’s novels to be translated into English, and received moderate attention and lukewarm reviews. His tendency to view his characters with the same panoramic lens he uses for the scenery – zooming in only briefly to record a reaction or fleeting emotion before sweeping off to the next plot twist – is a deliberate, but perhaps not always successful, stylistic tick. His use of the third person omniscient narrator is masterful, but (perhaps as a result) his book is not character driven enough to appeal to the genre reader. Nor is his writing experimental enough to draw the attention of the die-hard translation crowd. What he has done is written a solid, entertaining and (admittedly) cinematic novel filled with lovely passages that fire the imagination – the perfect book for Fall nights curled up in a comfortable armchair under a warm blanket.

Federico checked on last time that the volumes were in good condition, then called the clerk and ordered him to wrap them. He walked Ficino to the door of the shop. The old scholar took off his hat to say goodbye to his host, then again pulled it down over his ears. The rain had stopped. The clerk arrived, holding the precious package at arm’s length, and was already rushing outside, forcing Master Ficino to gallop after him. Federico watched them scampering toward the rainbow that crowned the end of the avenue. He half expected to see them fly away on the horizon and whirl around amid steeples and towers, gaily beating their wings beyond the orange roofs of the city.

A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos by Dava Sobel

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was an amazing man by the standards of any age. He was a physician, had a degree in law, spoke multiple languages, was a mathematician, translator, an officer of the church, administrator and governor of church lands, an economist and an astronomer.  With crude instruments (and no telescope) he observed the night sky.  And the data he collected told him that the Earth and planets orbited the Sun.

I wonder if it’s possible for modern readers to fully understand how mind-blowing this revelation must have been?  Or how dangerous?  Copernicus lived in an era of contradictions – the Renaissance & Reformation were both in full swing.  Men like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Martin Luther were changing the world.  But the church was still very much in control.  One of the chief arguments cited against a heliocentric universe was the biblical passage Joshua 10:12-14.  It states “And the Sun stood still, and the Moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies.”  The Catholic church insisted on a literal interpretation.  It seems unbelievable, illogical and ridiculous.  Yet 90-years after Copernicus’ death Galileo would stand before the Inquisition and be forced to recant his support of Copernicus’ findings.

Dava Sobel makes “the Copernican Revolution” emotionally accessible.  She establishes the historical context and immerses her readers in it.  A More Perfect Heaven:  How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos is part history, part speculation;  the literary version of an interactive museum exhibit.  Sandwiched between two sections of fairly traditional, narrative non-fiction is a two act play in which she brilliantly addresses the turning point in Copernicus’ life.  She tells how Georg Joachim Rheticus (a young mathematician and a Protestant) arrived on the 66-year old astronomer’s doorstep and somehow convinced him to publish his findings.  The play humanizes the historical figure. We are made privy to the worry, indecision, sacrifice and fear.  While the actual conversations may be Sobel’s creations,  the mental state behind them is indubitably authentic.

Dava Sobel does a lot of things right in A More Perfect Heaven.  She’s a hell of a writer.  For example, when discussing Copernicus’ time as a district administrator in the diocese of Varmia Sobel randomly sprinkles excerpts from the official ledgers he kept amidst details of his duties and scientific research. The result creates a three-dimensional picture of the astronomer’s daily life.

…With or without calendar reform, Copernicus still needed to ascertain this fundamental parameter.  The length of the year defined the Earth’s orbit around the Sun – or, as other astronomers believed, the Sun’s orbit around the Earth – and pertained to almost every calculation in the heliocentric or any other planetary theory.

“Petrus, a herdsman in Thomasdorf, took possession of 2 parcels, which are vacant because Hans ran away.”

Copernicus fashioned a new yardstick for the eyar in an open loge on the south face of Allenstein Castle, just outside his private apartment.  Laying white stucco over the ruddy bricks, he painted the gird of a sundial onto the smooth surface.  The lines and numbers must have been black and red when new, though only a hint of color survives in the faded dial fragment still clinging to the castle wall.  Underneath, either on a table or the floor, he set a mirror – or maybe he used a bowl of water – to catch the Sun’s reflection and throw it up to the dial, where he charted the changing solar altitude through the seasons.

Part 3 of A More Perfect Heaven discusses the journey from manuscript to book.  It provides portraits of those who facilitated the publication of On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, and gives credit to the ones who built on Copernicus’ theory and played a part in its eventual acceptance.  Sobel covers all the angles.  Mostly, though, she tells a great story.  One that entertains.  No prior scientific knowledge required.

Publisher:  New York, Walker & Co. (2011)
ISBN:  978 0 8027 1793 1

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