The Kingdom of the Wicked

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The tale is told by Sadoc, the fictional narrator of Anthony Burgess’ earlier work, MAN OF NAZARETH. The sweep of the novel encompasses the burning of Rome, the conquest of Britain, Christians mauled by lions and wild dogs in the Colosseum, the Last Supper, and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Yet Sadoc returns repeatedly to individual human stories of the apostles and various religious sectarians and to the inhuman excesses of Nero, Caligula, and the other ruling Romans.

The early Christians are drawn as a frequently quarrelsome, confused lot who become fearful and exultant by turn. Numerous vignettes emphasize how the modest lives of fishermen, peasants, and craftsmen were drastically altered by the events of a dramatic era.

The Romans’ exploits, anything but modest, are described in lengthy detail, but with none of the lurid, almost gleeful language that made the violent scenes in Burgess’ A CLOCKWORK ORANGE so jarringly effective. In fact, the reader who has encountered earlier versions of this Roman world, in Robert Graves’s I CLAUDIUS, for example, will find Burgess’ account of their wicked doings pallid by comparison. The Christian visions, conversions, and miracles of the age are described none the less flatly.

The book’s unemotional tone in these descriptions is probably deliberate: When he wants it to be, Burgess’ descriptive prose is lilting and evocative. For the most part, however, his narrator Sadoc merely chronicles the events of this extraordinary era, adding little beyond an occasional complaint of his own failing health or a comment on the irony of fate. No particular insightfulness, wit, or flashy storytelling help move this ponderous work along. Lengthy, ambitious, rich in detail, the novel can best be recommended for diehard Burgess fans and perhaps the snowbound winter reader.