The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armour against Fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings:
Sceptre and Crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.
James Shirley, Death the Leveller
The Black Death, well, it wasn’t much fun, was it?
Neither is Pestilence, a novel set in 1347 Europe as the plague roared across the continent.
The novel, by Welsh writer William Owen Roberts, demands a strong stomach. It attempts to faithfully recreate the environs of the 14th Century in almost scatological detail. As such, the body and its fluids reign supreme. The characters endlessly seem to piss, vomit, cough, defecate, ejaculate, bleed, seep, scratch, sniff, fart, and, of course, die in machine gun numbers. Men dress as women and women masquerade as men. A nun sucks pus from open sores. A leper has sex with a goat. A serf lusts for a 10-year-old girl. A priest hacks off his own member and holds it in his hand.
In other words, it’s either the time of the bubonic plague or the Spike cable channel.
Roberts gets the historical part of his novel right. The book, obviously meticulously researched, offers readers a place where they truly don’t want to be, filled with people they would rather avoid. There is little romance about these simple times, when men and women lived in an ignorant world dominated by the self-serving tenets of the Roman Catholic Church, one where physicians believed the plague was caused by an imbalance of the basic elements in nature and when bloodletting was the first option in any treatment protocol.
When confronted with a terrible new disease that religion couldn’t explain and crude science couldn’t cure, society crumbled. Anarchy prevailed. The distinctions between classes evaporated. The Black Death didn’t spare anyone, noble, freeman or serf. Morality was another casualty. An eyewitness to the plague, the Florentine writer, Giovanni Boccaccio, wrote in the Decameron:
Since the sick were thus abandoned by neighbours, relatives and friends, while servants were scarce, a habit sprang up which had never been heard of before. Beautiful and noble women, when they fell sick, did not scruple to take a young or old man-servant, whoever he might be, and with no sort of shame, expose every part of their bodies to these men as if they had been women, for they were compelled by the necessity of their sickness to do so. This, perhaps, was a cause of looser morals in those women who survived.
Zesty times, they were, despite the calamity. And Roberts, to his credit, places us in Florence, Genoa, Avignon and Paris, square and center, as the plague makes waste and virtue vanishes. A sense of wonderment, panic and despair infects the passages in the novel that directly detail the onset of the disease. We encounter cowed royalty, puzzled physicians and frightened popes (there are, indeed, multiple popes, including one dwarf, because the true one, Clement VI, kept his identity hidden at this time of social breakdown).
If only Roberts allowed the reader stay in the midst of the carnage. But Pestilence‘s fatal flaw is its author’s decision to pursue an alternating narrative. One-half of the book concerns the journey of Salah Ibn al Khatib, a devout Muslim from Cairo, sent on a mission to assassinate the King of France, Philip of Valois. The other half of the story transports us to the small Welsh township of Dolbemaen, as its denizens struggle to overcome abject poverty, failed crops and religious tyranny. The townspeople are largely serfs, preoccupied by sickness, lust, violence and jealously.
Salah, the closest the book comes to having a central character, boards a ship in Alexandria and eventually lands on the Italian peninsula, just as the plague, too, is arriving from Asia. His journey to Paris becomes a series of misadventures, ones that would normally be at home in a screwball comedy. His clothes are stolen and he disguises himself as a bishop. He is attacked, seduced and swindled. But his benign experiences occur against a grotesque backdrop, as the plague claims an ever-increasing score of victims and hordes begin fleeing the towns for the countryside.
Roberts’ narrative, at this point, turns frustrating to point of distress. Each short chapter attending to the progress of the plague and Salah’s nightmarish ordeal is followed with a pedestrian account of a Day In the Life of Chwilen Bwm, citizen serf, consumed with his desire for the 10-year-old girl, Nest. (He ultimate lands her, persuading her to help him let loose the demon that has taken hold of his erect genitalia. Try that line Friday night at the bar.) You find yourself racing through these sections to return to Salah’s more compelling plotline. When the plague finally arrives in Wales and claims the majority of the townsfolk, you’re on the edge of applause.
Not that the Salah arc is without its problems. Roberts seems unsure whether he’s writing historical genre fiction or striving for a higher literary endeavor. While blurbs compare Roberts to Umberto Eco or Salman Rushdie, the writing doesn’t measure up. Salah’s motivations are elusive. The purpose for his mission remains unclear. His reactions to what he views, as a Muslim wanderer lost in Western Europe, are surprisingly sober and fair-minded. He never seems overwhelmed or disturbed by what he discovers, despite his profoundly different cultural mindset. At the same time, as a straight genre piece, the suspense never peaks. The brief portion of narrative in which Salah finally confronts his quarry passes so quickly that you wonder what all the trouble was about in the first place. It’s well and fine if Roberts wishes to deflate genre expectations by disarming his dramatic payoff before it explodes, but give the reader something in exchange.
Part of the problem could lie in the translation. Pestilence has a history of its own. Originally written in Welsh, the book is more than 15 years old. It’s the first modern Welsh novel to be translated into English and may have lost some its personality in the transference. That may also account for dizzying parade of characters in the Welsh town of Dolbemaen whose names resemble each other so closely that fairly soon, you forget who’s whom. Ioewerth Gam meet Ieuen Ddu. Iocyn Fach, say hello to Ioewerth Foel. Tegwared ap Rhys, you remember Rhys ap Dafydd, don’t you?
The English version of the novel comes at an interesting time. Despite its age, the book is now impossible to read without considering the current context. Roberts, likely unintentionally, has fashioned his own Clash of Civilizations here. An Islamic assassin sets off to murder one of the leaders of the Western World. As he does so, virulent death travels hand-in-hand with him. While Roberts should be given the benefit of the doubt on this one, it isn’t a stretch to see Salah himself as a metaphor for the plague. That Salah isn’t crudely caricaturized is a strong note in Roberts’ defense. At the same time, the effort would have been aided immeasurably had Salah come off as more of a, well, actual Muslim. Other than some throwaway references to the Koran, you never quite feel like you’re viewing the Western world through Eastern eyes. Salah should be even more of a stranger in a strange land than he is.
Giovanni Boccaccio, by the way, is, has a cameo in Pestilence. Salah runs across the writer in Florence. Boccaccio’s in the midst of fleeing the city, actions that presumably formed the basis of the Decameron. Roberts pays a sly tribute to a colleague who did Roberts one better by witnessing the devastation caused by the plague first-hand. “I believing in pleasing the reader,” Boccaccio tells Salah in a brief discussion of artistic philosophy. “No need to offend them unnecessarily with gratuitous sex and filth.”
Obviously, the statement is a joke. Unfortunately for Pestilence, the novel is the punchline.
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