The Beast In the Vatican
By Steven Moore
Sunday, September 15, 1996
Lawrence Norfolk's second novel (after "Lampriere's Dictionary") is a historical extravaganza, a panorama of 16th-century life so fantastically detailed that the author seems to have done his research by way of a time machine.
The frame for this gargantuan novel is the story of the monks of Usedom, a tiny island in the Baltic Sea. Founded in the Middle Ages, the order is in disorder by the beginning of the Renaissance, their monastery crumbling into the sea and their leadership divided. In 1514 the monks decide to travel to Rome to seek guidance from the pope.
Once in Rome, "The Pope's Rhinoceros" bursts into life. Norfolk seems to have walked the streets of 16th-century Rome, so detailed are his descriptions of the smells, the cuisine, the weather, the riffraff, the different kinds of pawnshops, building practices, the rat problem -- endless details on every aspect of Roman life. This isn't the glittering, ecclesiastic Rome of most historical novels but a muddy, noisy dump.
Ruling over this sweaty, smelly city is Pope Leo X, who has a shadowy past that he tries to forget by way of a craving for "marvels and prodigies." One of his prize possessions is an elephant, but he has read in Pliny's "Natural History" of a rarer creature, the elephant's natural enemy, which is referred to throughout the novel only as the Beast. (Not naming the animal except in the book's title is one form of narrative coyness the author practices; another is beginning a chapter in an unspecified setting with an unidentified "he," keeping the reader in the dark for paragraphs at a time.) As it happens, the ambassadors of Portugal and Spain are in Rome at the time, urging the pope to redraw the dividing line between territories being discovered in the New World, so to curry favor both ambassadors arrange to procure a rhinoceros for the pontiff.
The race is on. Portugal contacts its people in the Indian city of Goa, where a rhino is boarded on a ship for a harrowing voyage across the Indian Ocean and around the Cape. Spain meanwhile sends a rickety vessel to West Africa to find one. Its representatives -- who do indeed find a rhinoceros (or rather, it finds them) -- are a pair of ne'er-do-wells named Salvestro and Bernardo, the real protagonists of the novel. A classic picaresque pair -- Salvestro is wily and resourceful, Bernardo a dim-witted giant -- they accompany the monks down from Usedom but once in Rome run into some old enemies from their soldiering days. To escape them, they agree to sail to Africa on what is clearly a fool's errand. (There are machinations, subplots and double-crossings at work here that I couldn't begin to summarize. Norfolk shows that behind-the-scenes skulduggery has always been politics as usual, especially in Holy Rome.)
Norfolk displays an encyclopedic knowledge of every setting he uses, from arcane aspects of shipwrighting and canon law to the ecology of West African rain forests. Like the pope, he too has a penchant for marvels and prodigies and enlivens his prose with bold, flamboyant descriptions and some daring personification. "Once great, now this: a yawn-inducing acreage of alluvial dullness, a river-riven flood plain that shelves at the rate of one vertical foot to the horizontal mile, the drop corresponding to the land's sinking self-esteem and the coast to its despair. The land has been creeping slily out to sea for the last twenty centuries or so and meeting zero resistance en route, the Tiber flopping about like a sciatic drunk, this channel, that channel, a delta briefly." He even offers observations from the point of view of animals: We have the thoughts of herring, strategy sessions by rats, and the deliberations of an African ant. The cast of characters, human and animal, expands with every chapter, with new characters being introduced up to the end. All of this is both admirable and exhausting, overwhelming the narrative at times and stunning the reader by the amount of research Norfolk must have done.
The novel finally returns to Rome for what the pope hopes will be a grand climax, intent as he is that "however it ends . . . it be large, chaotic, noisy." Norfolk's conclusion is exactly that, a flamboyant end to an extravagant novel.
When published in Britain earlier this year, the novel drew comparisons to Umberto Eco's erudite, historical novels. But "The Pope's Rhinoceros" is less like "The Name of the Rose" than the kind of historical novels William T. Vollmann and Rikki Ducornet write, where the old-fashioned genre is given a postmodern makeover. Norfolk has expressed admiration for the work of Thomas Pynchon and has a similar gift for displaying a casual mastery of the most outlandish historical materials.
Does the pope get his rhinoceros? Yes and no. To find out, you'll have to track the Beast yourself through the jungles of Norfolk's adjective-rich prose.
Steven Moore has written on William Gaddis and Ronald Firbank and frequently write about contemporary literature.
© 1996 The Washington Post Co.
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