Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road: a little adventure
THE GENTLEMEN of the road are two wanderers in the year AD 950. Two men couldn't be too different: Zelikman the Jew is pale and wiry; Amram the Abyssinian is dark and huge. The first chapter begins with a scene in the caravansary. They pretend like they're killing each other, to the excitement of the crowd who gives outrageous bets as to who wins. Until one of them gets killed, of course—or so they like it to appear—in which case they will have collected all the money they need before anybody finds out the truth. The fight is but a show.
Their lives take a different turn when they meet Faruq, a young Khazar prince whose throne has been usurped by his father's political enemy. The boy has a foul mouth, has outrageous demands, and is so stubborn they have to bound him. What do Zelikman and Amram do with him? They will take him back to his homeland where they will be rewarded with gold. Faruq has plans to take revenge against the usurper Buljan, but the gentlemen of the road don't know that yet. Eventually they will play a major part in his re-institution as the bek of the Khazars.
The battles, elephants, whores, and people groups they meet are all interesting, like watching an epic film. But what fascinates me most is the fact that Zelikman is a physician, descended from a family of Frankish healers. He uses a lancet, an otherwise funny instrument, both to kill and heal. He has carefully made potions that put his enemies to sleep. He has balms and ointments to bring about analgesia. And he's perennially depressed and solitary. Even his appearance shows it: black hat, black cloak, long hair.
Michael Chabon uses archaic terms, so I had to have my dictionary beside me to get the full picture. Gentlemen of the Road is a short book with lots of things happening in it, some of them really funny, showing Chabon's diligence in researching for material, and displaying the results of his impressive reading habits. All great writers are great readers, after all.
In the afterword Chabon admits that there is incongruity in this novel and his previous New Yorker-ish works—the literary, serious types of stories about divorce and family life and Pittsburgh. But he gives the reason: he has "gone off in search of a little adventure." And what an adventurous, worthwhile reading experience it has been.