Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Book review: The Pope’s Rhinoceros, Lawrence Norfolk (1996)

This book was bought on sale at some point in time. The recommended retail price on the back cover was $26.95, but in addition to the “Sale” sticker on the front someone’s used a marker to draw a line on the page-edges on the bottom of the book.

This is an ordinary production. It’s problem is not only structural and stylistic. It’s also about the characters. To start with, you’re not quite sure who you’re supposed to care about. And while the first section details part of the experience of a boy in some remote European community – presumably somewhere where it gets very cold for part of the year – the trail abruptly terminates and then you are asked to sympathise with a community of monks living in a decrepit abbey in the same part of the world. Three hundred years go past in a rush, taking you (by my calculation) to the Renaissance, at which point most of the building falls into the sea.

I’m not entirely sure if this occurrence is meant to be read as symbolic of the Catholic Church’s troubles at that point in history, but here the second problem arises. In the first section the language is allusive and ornate – quite lovely, actually – and gives off a host of secondary meanings as you read. For example:
He ran to meet the boat when it came but Ewald would not speak to him with his father there and the other man crossed himself and looked away. He spent his other days wandering the island, looking for things to tell his friend. Greengages grew wild on the eastern side in an orchard overgrown with nettles and whippy ash trees. Little sticklebacks swam in the peat bog and eels came ashore at night to cross the narrow band of land, winding through the stringy grass near Koserow. He could swim underwater with his eyes open and hold his breath until he fainted. He told all these things to Ewald, but his best secrets were not his at all. They were the things he heard from his mother.
This has promise, but when you get to the monks’ story things get stodgy. Leavening fantasy is abandoned and you’re now dealing with a straight historical novel, so surprise at the book’s early charm cedes ground to dismay at the prospect of getting through over 700 pages of a brand of humour that is both arch and low:
Dirty grey light bulged in at the windows set high in the wall, pressing on the interior gloom. Humped on pallets lining the length of the dorter, monks in various stages of wakefulness stirred at the sound of footsteps. HansJurgen tiptoed between the two rows.
It comes to 45 words, and would be better delivered like this:
Grey light bulged in at windows set high in the wall and pressed on the gloom inside. Humps on pallets set along the length of the dorter: monks in various stages of wakefulness stirring as HansJurgen’s soft footfalls filled a space between the rows.
That’s one word less – 44 words – and it has more poetry (note especially the “f” and “s” sounds in the final clause); I don’t see the monk on “tiptoe”, he’s far too glum and prosaic, and why would he care if they heard him walking past their beds? A bit further down page 65 you get this purple patch:
His intrusion rippled slowly over the slumped bodies. A belch sounded. Sphincters began to loosen and release farts into the cold air. Unwashed mouths breathed stertorously and added evil-smelling clouds to the fug. Urgent rustlings ceased abruptly at his approach, were furtively resumed as he passed further down the dorter. Fingery sins were being committed under rank-smelling coverlets. It was on the increase; fumblings and yieldings in the dawn’s grey silence, Onan’s sin at the dousing of the lights. HansJurgen blamed the Prior. His lectures stirred up the younger ones and threw their humours out of balance. A loud, ill-concealed grunt resounded from somewhere behind him. Spillage. Young dogs.
It comes to 109 words, and would be better delivered thus:
He rippled by their lumpy forms. Sphincters loosened, releasing gas into cold air. A belch. Unwashed mouths breathed stertorously, adding to the evil fug. He imagined urgent rustlings ceasing at his approach and resuming as he passed further down. Fingery sins committed under rank coverlets. It was happening more and more; fumblings and yieldings in the grey silence, Onan let in at the dousing of the lights. He blamed the Prior. Those lectures stirred youngsters, put their humours out of balance. A grunt somewhere behind him. Spillage. “Young dogs,” thought HansJurgen bitterly.
That’s 92 words; Norfolk’s prose is underwritten and swings from a worthy, unspectacular lyricism to broad satire, which seems to tumble willy-nilly from his keyboard. In the second extract shown above the galumphing rhythm is deliberate, and has echoes of Seamus Heaney – a poetics of the uncouth.

When combined, the book’s shortcomings – of character, structure, and style – threw up in front of me an obstacle that is, furthermore, emblematic of a problem literary fiction has struggled to overcome, a perception among a large section of the community that it’s difficult. This novel is obscure not because it lacks complexity but because it is not ambitious enough, and the paeans emblazoned on the back cover (on the front one, too) are confusing because they show that a lot of people found the book entertaining. Or did they read any of it before commenting …? Or know Norfolk and felt an obligation to say something nice about his latest book? Or – as he was a known author – assume that his work “must’ve been” good enough to warrant their kind regard. It’s unaccountable.

No comments: