In Print : A trip back in time
Crossed: A Tale of the Fourth Crusade by Nicole Galland, Harper Paperbacks, 672 pages, 2008, $15.95
Islander Nicole Galland's new novel, "Crossed: A Tale of the Fourth Crusade" is at once an idiot's guide to the tangled geopolitical landscape of 13th century and a clear and stern indictment of contemporary events. It warns us against taking the rhetoric of our leaders at face value and, like another Islander, Geraldine Brooks's recent novel, People of the Book, points to the galling historical proximity of enlightened urbanity and naked, clannish thuggery.
As Barbara Tuchman wrote in "The Proud Tower," her seminal history of the 14th century, "The Middle Ages change color depending on who is looking at them." Just as Tuchman scoured the century of the Black Death seeking consolation for and comprehension of her own historical moment - the devastation following the Second World War - Galland turns to the 13th century with an eye to understanding our own crusading times.
We meet our narrator, a vagabond Briton with a haunted past, on the docks in Venice in 1202, midway through a failed suicide attempt. At the insistence of the pious German knight Gregor of Mainz, he is dragged along on the fourth Crusade, and is absorbed into an unlikely troupe including Gregor, his choleric brother Otto, the savvy whore Liliana, a couple of oafish squires and the brilliant and fascinating Jamilla, who becomes both the object of the Briton's romantic fixation and the reason for his grudging renewed attachment to life. As the crusaders progress, the family drama interweaves with the larger political story.
Armed with his skill as a lutist, Iago-calibre cunning and near suicidal recklessness, the Briton manages to penetrate into the highest corridors of power and witness the machinations of the various cabals of clerics and nobles firsthand as the Crusaders are diverted first to Zadar and then to Istanbul by political and financial considerations. His dexterity allows Galland to skip lightly from descriptions of the top levels of command to the flea-bitten, mush-eating lives of the common soldier, while his contemptuous detachment from the situations in which he finds himself justifies a running commentary on the unfolding action that is delivered from a clearly un-medieval perspective.
Thick with delectable historical details, like the way in which the crusader's warhorses were transported over the Mediterranean (in large slings in the ship's belly), the book also offers a broad view of the period likely to upend some of our received notions of the time. We tend to study medieval Europe as we do our grandparents - our interest in them derives from what came out of them (us), and we fail to see their intricate interrelation to things that now seem foreign or irrelevant.
Certain scenes in "Crossed," as when the crusaders look with befuddled awe at an aqueduct in Istanbul, or the dome of the Hagia Sophia, serve as reminders that Medieval Latin Christendom was a provincial backwater relative to its neighbors farther east.
At the heart of the tale is the Briton's journey from nihilism to moral meaning as he develops his own credo against the backdrop of, and in opposition to, the zealotry, dogmatism, and crude self-seeking of the Crusaders.
But the novel's real heroes are its women, who lead extraordinary double lives - existing at once as chattel and intrepid negotiators of their own destinies. Throughout the scenes of carnage and senseless violence, Jamilla's resilience and continual humanity seem to point to the vital importance of keeping one's wits, and guarding as a precious treasure one's sense of irony.
Nicole Galland will speak at the Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven, May 9 at 7:30 pm.
Sofi Thanhauser is a contributor to The Times.