A historical saga of Pope Urban II's perverse ``armed pilgrimage''—that is, the First Crusade—brilliantly folds post- Vietnam cynicism and late-20th-century spiritual doubt into a bloody, muddy, horrifyingly surreal march to Jerusalem in 1096. First-novelist Rivele, a screenwriter and playwright, begins this medieval pastiche as a roots tale, in which he tells of his personal discovery of a diary kept by his fictional ancestor, Roger l'Escrivel (the writer), Duke of the Provenáal region of Lunel. Presented as Rivele's modern translation (with delightfully ironic annotations) of Roger's diary, the story begins with bumbling Roger's seduction by a peasant's wife. After the cuckolded peasant apparently drowns himself, Roger, a fretful Candide, seeks to atone for his guilt by joining the 30,000 nobles, knights, and peasants who make up the First Crusade. As if he were writing a Vietnam combat novel, the author revels in ghastly scenes of violence and depravity laced with unexpected wit. When the brain-damaged peasant Peter Bartholomew burns himself to death clutching a holy relic that was supposed to protect him from harm, and when the bloodthirsty Normans, who decorate their armor with the severed body parts of their victims, let political intrigue almost destroy the ragtag remnant of a once-mighty army, Roger confronts God with a very 20th-century version of despair. His suffering is made only worse when he falls in love with a wise and beautiful Turkish poetess, Yasmin. Yasmin's mystical mutterings about faith and emptiness increase Roger's spiritual agony, which reaches the breaking point when he abandons Yasmin, who is now pregnant with his child, to join his comrades for the final assault on Jerusalem. No feel-good sophistry or sentimentality relieves Roger's Pyrrhic revelation within Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A stunningly mature novel of faith, violence, love, and loss that, while rooted in late-20th-century nihilism and uncertainty, remains scrupulously faithful to its period.
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