Christie debuts with a literary exploration of Gutenberg and his printing press, which sparked a technological revolution—as well as the other men involved who were left in history's shadows.
Johann Fust, prosperous merchant of Mainz, Germany, gathered guilders and gold for Gutenberg. Peter Schoeffer, Fust’s ward who was training in Paris as a scribe, was called home to become Gutenberg's apprentice—and watch over the mad genius. An orphaned peasant boy, cousin of Fust’s first wife, Schoeffer resented being drawn away from intellectual circles but came to see his chance to “raise again the…lamp of learning.” Schoeffer’s the primary protagonist, his interior journey from frustration to reconciliation to obsession with Gutenberg’s press deftly chronicled against the panorama of the 15th century—the jealous craft guilds, the iron hand and depraved greed of the church hierarchy, the free towns like Mainz controlled by the machinations of oligarchs called Elders. Schoeffer anchors the story, but Gutenberg flashes—megalomaniacal and duplicitous, with hair “wild and bristling to his shoulders…beard cascad[ing]…glinting here and there like twists of wire,” and “glowing, canine eyes.” Christie masterfully depicts the time and energy required to print the first Bibles, a yearslong process of trial and error, tinkering with ink and type, lines and paper, guilder after guilder spent without return, all against a catastrophic backdrop of plague, the fall of Constantinople, the violent superstitions of the peasantry, and a vested intelligentsia fearing the press would generate “crude words crudely wrought...smut and prophecy, the ranting of anarchists and antichrists.” Bibles, 180 in all, are printed in the strictest secrecy lest the press be seized “as a threat to the scriptoria whose proceeds kept the landed cloisters fat.” While rendered chronologically, with a second narrative thread about Schoeffer’s courtship of his first wife, the narrative is given texture through intermittent chapters in which Schoeffer, years later—worried that Gutenberg’s triumph was more corrupt than holy—relates his story to Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim.
A bravura debut.