Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

02/11/07, The Times

In acknowledgement of the surprise that his new book, Gentlemen of the Road, a swashbuckling, Boys’ Own, Jewish picaresque swords-and-elephants-and-treachery adventure set in 10th-century Caucasus, might hold for his readers, he appends an explanatory ‘Afterword’. This unprecedented departure from his usual ‘late-century naturalism’ to produce a book that he will always think of as Jews with Swords was the result, he writes, of giving in to an old longing for ‘[going] off in search of a little adventure’, while delving further into the realm of Jewishness. Chabon’s previous novel, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, marks the beginning of an exploration of Jewishness and the diaspora that has been absent from his earlier fiction. With this new book, he can be seen as reinventing and reclaiming Jewishness for fiction.

Whereas the engagement with Jewishness in, say, Roth or Bellow, is attenuated (hardly an issue, really) and always tethered to naturalism or psychological realism, or in Howard Jacobson to a kind of scabrous comedy, in Chabon the collision is increasingly beginning to take the form of a colourful, fugal, wildly imaginative inventiveness, fiction in its purest sense. Thus, he inserts the deathly whisper of the Holocaust in a Sherlock Holmes story, manufactures a counterfactual history of the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and the 1947 Israel-Arab War in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and now rewrites a conflation of the Thousand and One Nights, The Three Musketeers, a raft of historical adventure tales, even the wanderings of the Israelites in search of the Promised Land, for a wistful look at a Jewish country, surrounded by Muslim neighbours, in a way that is forever touching teasingly, gently on allegory.

The odd couple at the centre of this book are the itinerant Amram and Zelikman, the former a giant Abyssinian Jew who carries a deadly axe called ‘Defiler of your Mother’, the latter, a pale, cadaverous, shaggy-haired, blond Frank Jew from Regensburg in flight from his Jewishness, his weapon of choice called Lancet, a long thin needle with which he skewers assailants. Stylish gentlemen swindlers, who trick people quite spectacularly to part with their money, they are given charge of delivering home a beautiful young man, Filaq, whose ‘father’s fabled kingdom of wild red-haired Jews on the western shore of the Caspian Sea’ has been usurped by Buljan, and his brother Alp, the heir, sold into slavery to the Rus, rapacious barbarians from the north.

What an unmitigated delight of a book this is! Extraordinary adventures unfold on the way to Khazaria: there’s a lot of bloodshed, violence, pillage-and-plunder, elephants play a crucial role and nothing is what it seems. Every page holds a stunning twist while the prose is rich, overwrought, but perfect in its control and its calibration between the precisely poetic and the exotic. The register of liberally-used words such as ‘shatranj’, ‘rebab’, ‘sharab’, ‘javshigar’ spring naturally from the time in which it is set, a time of fractious mingling of races, cultures and religions. The book has a melancholy heart – the losses and sadnesses in it are real, irreversible and moving – while its allegorical echoes are at once hard-nosed, wishful and fantastic (and all the more powerful for that). With its allusive textures, a glance here at Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars, there at Don Quixote, its soaring, glittering storytelling and its subtle resonances with contemporary history, readers might be forgiven for feeling that they have arrived at the book world’s equivalent of the Promised Land.