In his ongoing crusade to reanimate tales of adventure set in days of yore, Chabon (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, 2007, etc.) offers an ebullient yarn that blithely defies probability, while plundering from innumerable semi-literary sources.
Originally serialized in the New York Times Magazine (January-May 2007), it’s a story that moves from a caravansary in the Caucasus, along the legendary Silk Road traveled by merchants and adventurers, to the royal city Atil, stronghold of the Khazars, but presently occupied by the usurper, Buljan, who had murdered its rightful rulers. We learn all this through the efforts of the eponymous “gentlemen”: an Abyssinian soldier of fortune, Amram, and a cadaverous Frankish opportunist, Zelikman, who possesses the skills of an apothecary and the soul of an emotionless killer. Living by their wits (e.g., staging fights to the death and absconding with money wagered by gullible spectators), they encounter a beardless young man, Filaq, who’s the only survivor of his family’s slaughter by Buljan, and who, after initially mistrusting Zelikman and Amram, enlists them in pursuit of the throne that is rightfully his. Eyebrows will arch at the many twists and turns, (not so surprising) surprises and reversals, as the trio proceed toward Atil, joining forces with an army of (Arsiyah) mercenaries weary from battle with Northern invaders (who appear to be in collusion with the nefarious Buljan), then a family of Jewish (Radanite) traders confident that wholesale slaughter need not interfere with business as usual. Nobody is quite who he seems to be. But the worst villains experience comeuppance, in the gratifying resolution of a complaint voiced by, of all people, Buljan: “There was no hope for an empire that had lost the will to prosecute the grand and awful business of adventure.” That might be the voice of Chabon addressing his readers.
Ridiculously entertaining. If the movie people don’t snap this one up, somebody’s asleep at the switch.