The Pope’s Rhinoceros

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Around a handful of otherwise unrelated facts—the founding of the East India Company in 1600, the siege of the Huguenot stronghold of Rochelle in 1627-1628 by Cardinal Richelieu’s forces, and the publication of John Lemprière’s dictionary of classical mythology in 1788—Lawrence Norfolk wove his first novel, Lemprière’s Dictionary (1991), into a narrative tapestry as richly textured and teasingly ludic as any of the better known “antiquarian romances” and “historiographic metafictions” of A. S. Byatt, Umberto Eco, Milorad Pavić, Thomas Pynchon, and Salman Rushdie. Novels such as these fascinate us because, as Eco points out, they have “the same function as games,” simulation, and because they “offer the opportunity to employ limitlessly our faculties for preserving the world and reconstructing the past.” Few novels however, combine intellectual stimulation and sheer narrative pleasure quite as skillfully and seductively as either Lemprière’s Dictionary, even in its shorter, more momentum-driven American edition (1992), or The Pope’s Rhinoceros, Norfolk’s eagerly awaited second novel.

Like its predecessor, The Pope’s Rhinoceros is loosely based on a few verifiable, albeit unrelated facts. It is, in other words, a “historical novel” with a difference, an “unfettered fantasy” (according to the jacket copy) which begins with a bravura description of the forming of the Baltic coast and, several geologic ages later, the sinking of the city of Vineta in the thirteenth century. That the latter is rendered from the point of view of the area’s once-abundant herring population seems at once funny and phantasmagoric; that Vineta’s destruction doubles as its salvation is, on the other hand, more blackly humorous. The sudden storm that fantastically blows Vineta into the sea also saves it from being sacked, thus denying Henry the Lion’s army its “cathartic cleansing after a long and successful campaign” (a nicely turned euphemism for rape, pillage, and murder).

The monks who arrive soon after, in 1273, to build a church at this outpost of empire do not fare much better, as the first abbot’s chronicle “of collapses and repairs, subsidence and restorations” attests. When a second contingent of monks arrives a little over two centuries later to pick up where the first left off, their efforts to build upon clay, rather than the biblically recommended rock, also fail, leaving the monks caught between two equally daft courses of action. They can follow the ever-industrious Brother Gerhardt and shore up the church’s ruins in the face of certain defeat, or they can follow their visionary prior Jörg (weak-eyed from too much reading) to Rome where, after securing the pope’s blessing, he plans to have them rebuild their church in some other, presumably firmer corner of Christianity’s rapidly expanding empire. To reach Rome, Jörg enlists the services of two “ruffians” turned adventurers, Salvestro and Bernardo, whom the monks rescued from the sea when Salvestro’s mad plan to plunder the vast riches of a perhaps entirely mythical Vineta, using a borrowed boat, some rope, a barrel, and Bernardo’s enormous strength, fails. That Salvestro sought his fortune in the very place where his mother had been murdered as a witch years before and that in guiding the monks Salvestro and Bernardo will have to pass through the same war-torn lands they only recently fled, along with the outrages they witnessed there, are but two of this vast and sardonic novel’s many little ironies.

The difficulties of Usedom on the Baltic give way to the vagaries and intrigues of Rome as Norfolk’s already intricate plot thickens and proliferates, its strands oddly intersecting. The conflicts between Jörg and Gerhardt and between Salvestro and the natives, formerly his neighbors, who murdered his mother give way to the less binary, more rhizoid plots of Pope Leo X; the Spanish and Portuguese ambassadors (and their less than faithful minions); a colonel wrongly held responsible for the outrages committed during the Spanish conquest of Prato; the child Amalia, who is the sole survivor of Prato’s ruling family; the slave Eusebia, who was and who again will be the African princess Usse; and more besides—all set (as is Lemprière’s Dictionary) against the backdrop of early colonialism. Initially, however, matters in Rome seem absurdly simple. The “pleasure-loving Pope,” Leo X, wants a companion for his beloved elephant. This is the rhinoceros which the pope, having read Plinius, mistakenly believes is the elephant’s natural...

(The entire section is 1891 words.)