The Pope's Rhinoceros Essay - Critical Essays

Lawrence Norfolk

The Pope’s Rhinoceros

Lawrence Norfolk’s highly acclaimed first novel, LEMPRIERE’S DICTIONARY (1991), was a superb addition to a subgenre, the postmodern historical novel, which includes such notable works as John Barth’s THE SOT-WEED FACTOR (1987), Thomas Pynchon’s GRAVITY’S RAINBOW (1987), Salman Rushdie’s MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN (1981), Umberto Eco’s THE NAME OF THE ROSE (1983), and A. S. Byatt’s POSSESSION: A ROMANCE (1990). As daunting as LEMPRIERE’S DICTIONARY, albeit perhaps slightly less dazzling, Norfolk’s latest “unfettered fantasy” is, like its predecessor, woven around a handful of verifiable facts. Beginning in an early geologic age with the forming of the Baltic coast, it then leaps ahead to the late thirteenth century (the sinking of the city of Vineta into the sea the night before it was to be sacked), before settling down to the early sixteenth century.

The action moves to Rome and the Spanish and Portuguese ambassadors’ efforts to get the “pleasure-loving pope” Leo X what he wants—a rhinoceros to add to his collection of curiosities —in order to get what they want, the papal bull that will give the Church’s sanction to one or the other country’s colonial claims. There are also a group of monks who have left the Baltic to seek the Pope’s blessing for their prior’s visionary plan to rebuild their crumbling church in some other corner of Europe’s fast-expanding empire. There is more, including a Spanish colonel’s...

(The entire section is 485 words.)