Gentlemen of the Road, by Michael Chabon
Posted July 15, 2010on:
When I first read Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. Successfully passed off as historical fiction, my brain kept telling me I was reading a sword and sorcery fantasy, just with chemisty substituted for sorcery. The illustrations featuring the tall slender Zelikman dressed all in black with long white hair and the plot lines focusing on revenge and violence put me in the mind of an Elric story. After letting the book percolate through my brain for a week or so, I’m concluding the weaknesses in the story can mostly be blamed on my slightly off interpretation.
In Chabon’s afterward, he says the working title of the book was “Jews with Swords”, which is pretty much what this book was, and the prime reason why I had to keep reminding myself it really is loose historical fiction. Taking place in and around the Khazar empire (think modern day Azerbaijan), and for about 100 years around 1000 AD the state religion of the Empire was Judaism. And just like other empires of the day, they were constantly fighting off invaders and neighbors. Put simply, the story follows two Jewish friends, Zelikman and Amram who are soldiers for hire, scholars by choice, and con men for fun and money.
Both men are far from home and haunted by their pasts, losing family members and lovers in wars and raids. Zelikman, the last in a line of a famous family of Frankish physicians prefers to down his enemies via ether soaked cloths to the mouth, and can often by found tending to the wounded of both sides after battles. Amram is as formidable a shatranj (think chess) player as he is a strongman, and it is his strong ethics that keep Zelikman’s brooding in check.
Not unusual for a Chabon novel, these are just men, who have made the choices that seemed right at the time, and are now just trying to live their lives in peace. Ha! When a con job goes wrong, Amram and Zelikman find themselves the unlikely protectors of a dethroned prince Filaq, who informs them of the coup in the capital city by the usurper Buljan. Buljan murdered Filaq’s family, and now the young prince wants revenge, and the throne. Buljan has allowed the northern Rus tribes access to the empire, and the Rus systematically attack the Muslim towns, while doing only friendly trading in the Jewish towns. This will turn the Muslims away from their usually protective Jewish King and may destroy the empire. Filaq needs to get back to the capital, remove Buljan from the palace, fight the Rus, and make things right with the Muslim population. Horseless, weaponless, and with nary an army, he requests the help of Zelikman and Amran with his quest.
The primary action for the rest of the story is Zelikman and Amram watching Filaq grow into a capable leader, the collection of a rag tag army on the way to the capital, and Filaq being exposed as a sort of imposture.
But really, all that is secondary. As a Jew with a burgeoning fascination with her ancient past and languages, I thoroughly enjoyed the snippets of biblical references and hebrew, the obsure names and translations where I could smile and say to myself “I know what that word is! I know what Chabon is referencing!”. Someone who doesn’t get the references will still immensly enjoy themselves.
But even all that is secondary to the tragicly beautiful character that is Zelikman. Having left (or been banished) by his family over an ethical disagreement, he balks at the opportunity to get a message back to his father that he is still alive. I believe Zelikman wants nothing more than to be happy, but he spends his entire life running from an all consuming guilt that he refuses to allow himself to escape. Filaq gives Zelikman the opportunity to be noble, to do the right thing at the right time, to help an entire people instead of just himself. Filaq does the one thing for Zelikman that Amram has never been able to do – redeems him. The beginning of the book offers a fun and somewhat light hearted introduction as to what is going on and where we are. But on re-reading, I find myself gravitating towards the last 100 pages, where Zelikman and Filaq discover who they truly are and can be.
The first time I read this book I had a tough time getting into it. The beginning to so light that I wasn’t sure if Chabon was taking the thing seriously, so why should I? The middle is little choppy and confusing, with names and titles in languages that have been dead for 100 years, I didn’t know if someone was being called by a title or an insult. The end is well paced, redeeming and inspiring.
I’m not going to spoil the end by telling you Filaq’s true identity, I’ll just say that I really appreciated it, and it helped swing the book from “just okay” to “absolutely worth the read” for me.