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Michael Chabon – Gentlemen of the Road

October 24, 2012

117. Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon (2007)

Length: 208 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Started/Finished: 13 October 2012 (read-a-thon!)

Where did it come from? Bookmooch.
Why do I have it? I fell in love with Chabon’s writing back in the day when I first read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 25 November 2008.

Two mercenaries
find themselves caught in a war
not of their choosing.

Summary: Zelikman is tall, pale, and a one-time physician; his partner Amram is a broad-shouldered giant ex-soldier. They travel together through the mountains of eastern Europe making a living as mercenaries, theives, and con-men. But the area between the Black and Caspian seas was a dangerous place in the tenth century, especially when the two men find themselves as somewhat unwilling escorts to a young man who claims to be the deposed prince of the Khazar Empire, and who has a plan to begin a revolution to reclaim his rightful place.

Review: One of my frequent complaints about so-called “literary fiction” is that too often it places a high value on fancy, self-indulgent language at the expense of actually telling a good story. Thus, one of the things I like best about Chabon is that he consistently manages to accomplish both.

Chabon’s prose is undeniably fancy, and probably also a little self-indulgent. He is a huge fan of the long, twisty sentence, and for substantial sections of this book, I was discovering at least one new-to-me vocab word ever two pages. But because the prose is meant to embellish the story rather than replace it, I don’t mind him messing about with the language; on the contrary, I found myself reveling in it, and able to silence the little part of myself that was going “you could say that without the three-dollar words” and just let the rhythm of prose roll around in my mind. (On a correlated note, this has the potential to be a wonderful audiobook – there are passages that are just begging to be read aloud.)

But even better (to my mind, anyways) than the fancy prose was the story, which shone through even the most complicated sentence structure. This is a ripping adventure story, full of swords and horses and elephants and treachery and all sorts of fun stuff. (I mean heck, it made me bust out the adjective “ripping”.) You can tell that Chabon had fun dreaming this story up, and I had fun reading it – not just for the adventure parts (which are as escapist as any “genre” fiction), but also because it’s peppered with a bunch of snarkily funny bits throughout. I also really enjoyed the setting – I don’t know that I’ve ever visited the geographical area nor the time period before in my reading, and I appreciated the fact that this book is largely historically accurate.

In short, I had a really good time reading this book. For the most part, it read surprisingly quickly given the density of some of its prose, although there were a few places where I felt like something important passed by a bit too quickly, especially for readers like me who are unfamiliar with the geopolitical landscape of the time. But overall, a very enjoyable read. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I think all fans of historical fiction and/or adventure stories will enjoy this one, but it might be best for readers who secretly want escapist genre fiction while maintaining the air of “literary-ness” afforded by Chabon’s name on the cover.

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First Line: For numberless years a myna had astounded travelers to the caravansary with its ability to spew indecencies in ten languages, and before the fight broke out everyone assumed the old blue-tongued devil on its perch by the fireplace was the one who maligned the giant African with such foulness and verve.

Vocab: Holy crap there are a lot of words, so I’m breaking from tradition and not quoting whole sentences (also because Chabon loves himself a long sentence.) (see the whole vocab list)

  • p. 3: “…a small ivory shatranj board with pieces of ebony and horn…” – an old form of chess, which came to the Western world from India via Sassanid Persia.
  • p. 4: “…his quilted gray bambakion with its frayed hood, worn over a ragged white tunic…” – a type of padded under-garment, worn under armour, especially by Byzantine troops.
  • p. 5: “…the one-eyed mahout who was the stripling’s companion…” – a person who drives an elephant.
  • p. 6: “…if he was not a priest, then he must … be a physician or an exegete of moldering texts.” – one who practices exegesis, a critical explanation or interpretation of a text.
  • p. 10: “The Frank minced and scissored on his walking-stick legs, the tip of his bodkin indicating the heart of the African…” – a dagger or stiletto.
  • p. 12: “…It was a contest of stamina against agility, and those who had their money on the former began with confidence in the favorite and his big Varangian ax…” – one of the Scandinavians who invaded and settled parts of Russia and the Ukraine from the 8th to the 11th centuries.
  • p. 15: “…with their share of the take, which included four of the mahout’s own hard-won dirhams” – any of various silver coins minted in North African countries at different periods.
  • p. 20: “He was nearly as gifted at languages as the contumelious mynah.” – rudeness or contempt arising from arrogance; insolence.
  • p. 22: “He reached for the ivory handle of hisankus and turned to the stripling.” – a stick used, esp in India, for goading elephants.
  • p. 24: “And he named a sum then, equal to five times the salary of a dekarch in the army of Byzantium.” – member of decarchy; commander over ten.
  • p. 28: “With a mezair and a cut to the left and a pair of caprioles Zelikman danced the horse through the tangle of men.” – higher-level classical dressage movements in which the horse leaves the ground.
  • p. 31: “…puffing on a short Irish dudeen whose bowl he filled with a paste of hemp seed and honey.” – A short-stemmed clay pipe.
  • p. 38: “…quelching through mud that was an impasto of dirt and blood…” – the application of thick layers of pigment to a canvas or other surface in painting.
  • p. 38: “…an eyeless old man sat on a bucket, scratching at a two-stringed gourd, warbling weird melismas on a madman’s text.” – a passage of several notes sung to one syllable of text, as in Gregorian chant.
  • p. 43: “All that remained of the temple, reared by Alexander during his failed conquest of Caucasia and affiant now to that failure and to the ruin of his gods…” – one who makes an affidavit.
  • p. 49: “…three nights earlier Hanukkah and his fellows had shared a roast goat and a looted cask of sharab” – the Arabic word for syrup.
  • p. 57: “…he had been obliged, through the improvidence and cheeseparing of the emperor’s quartermasters and longstanding custom of his border troops, to steal not only horses but also cattle…” – penny-pinching; stingy.
  • p. 77: “…to ride the seven rods that lay between him and the city gates required the remainder of the daylight, the better part of his pharmakon and his entire stock of fine silken thread.” – sacrament, remedy, poison, talisman, cosmetic, perfume or intoxicant. (In this context, I basically read this as “med kit”.)
  • p. 82: “…no one interfere with or harass the Northmen in their “trading mission” among the peoples of the littoral.” – a coastal or shore region. (Never seen this as a noun before.)
  • p. 93: “…they were informed by the babaghuq, or mayor, of Sambunin, a Jewish Khazar town only four days’ ride from Atil.” – the title of an elected chieftain who was involved in the governance of a Khazar town, either in place of or in conjunction with a tudun or governor. The name means “father of the city”.
  • p. 93: “…to offer them, in the event they were unprepared to oblige, a generous emolument of five wagonloads of gold…” – Payment for an office or employment; compensation.
  • p. 112: “…the pachyderm, who was long overdue for a wallow, her skin dusted with scurf and the residue of travel.” – flaky or scaly matter adhering to or peeling off a surface.
  • p. 124: “…a deeper rumbling, an unmistakable continuo of pleasure as the stripling rubbed at the piebald patch between its phlegmatic little eyes…” – An independent bass line, usually realized on a keyboard instrument, in which numerals written underneath the notes indicate the kinds of harmony to be played.
  • p. 126: “…tore off the linen breeches, revealing a gonfalon of russet hair…” – A banner suspended from a crosspiece, especially as a standard in an ecclesiastical procession or as the ensign of a medieval Italian republic.
  • p. 126: “On that plain of mud and grass and staring faces, along the battlements and bartizans of the walls of Atil barbed with pikemen and archers…” – A small, overhanging turret on a wall or tower.
  • p. 128: “…there were shouts from the rear and the blatting tantara of an inhuman horn.” – A trumpet or horn fanfare.
  • p. 132: “…the prison fortress called Qomr, a mound of yellowish brick rising up from the left bank of the turbid river, in whose donjon by long tradition the warlord was obliged to lay his head.” – the fortified main tower of a castle; a keep.
  • p. 132: “…Buljan ordered that his sukkah be erected on the donjon’s roof…” – a temporary structure with a roof of branches in which orthodox Jews eat and, if possible, sleep during the festival of Sukkoth.
  • p. 134: “Buljan reached toward the shatranj board at his right hand, picked up one of the alfils of dark green stone…” – in shatranj, the elephant piece, which moves exactly two squares diagonally, jumping over the square between.
  • p. 173: “He conned the document without displaying interest or distress. He turned to the javshigar who stood by his side, a captain of archers in a scale-mail coat.” – To study, peruse, or examine carefully; Everything I find for “javshigar” on the internet is from this book, but clearly it’s “a captain of archers”.
  • p. 175: “.that giant fleet – launched at midsummer from the viks of the North…” – No help from the internet (too common), but I’m assuming this is a term for viking towns/camps/strongholds/etc.
  • p. 177: “…the lead Radanite wagon, a monstrous thing of heavy timber with tenoned wheels nearly as tall as the tarkhan drawn by two teams of massive, humped oxen, shaggy as wisents.” – A projection on the end of a piece of wood shaped for insertion into a mortise to make a joint; an ancient Central Asian title; the European bison.
  • p. 193: “For a long time he sat, listening to the barking of dogs and to the sad fiddling of the rebab, thin and plaintive in the snowy air…” – a type of string instrument from as early as the 8th century and spread via Islamic trading routes over much of North Africa, the Middle East, parts of Europe, and the Far East.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. October 24, 2012 7:59 am

    Wow, you found a lot of words in that book! I agree with you on literary fiction – sometimes the story gets lost in the language. It sounds like I need to try Chabon’s work.

    • October 25, 2012 12:54 pm

      Kathy – I like Chabon a lot, so I think everyone should give him a try. I started with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and I think that’s a fine place to start, but this one was funnier and substantially shorter, if you’re not ready to dive in to a really long book.

  2. October 24, 2012 7:10 pm

    Oh damn! I have only just managed to come to terms with the fact that I’m never going to love Michael Chabon’s fiction. And now you are making this sound so delightful! What to do what to do.

    • October 25, 2012 12:56 pm

      Jenny – We’ve established that I’m okay with you not liking Chabon if you’re okay with me not liking The Secret History! But if what you didn’t like was the angsty teenaged Jewish moping part of things, and think you’d get along better with some tenth-century (slightly angsty) Jewish swordplay, then maybe this one might be worth a try?

  3. October 24, 2012 9:42 pm

    Good for you to look up all the words–I usually just keep going when I don’t know what something means–guess that’s why my vocab doesn’t grow faster. Sounds like an interesting book, though.

    • October 25, 2012 12:58 pm

      Rachel – I don’t look them up when I’m reading (unless I’m on my Kindle) – that would slow me down too much! I just make a quick note of the word and page number, and look them all up at the end. And I do notice my vocabulary growing, although there are definitely some words that I’ve had to look up multiple different times before they finally stick.

  4. October 25, 2012 2:27 pm

    This is in my college library, and I’m saving it for next semester, which is my last semester. (Eek!) I agree that I can forgive a lot of Chabon’s semantic flourishes because of the stories he gives us; Telegraph Avenue has an incredibly indulgent section that consists of a single sentence over ten or so pages, but he almost gets away with it on his talent. (Almost. It is really indulgent.)

    • October 26, 2012 10:50 am

      Omni – Ten pages? I don’t know if even Chabon can get away with that… that sort of nonsense is part of the reason I eventually gave up on Blindness.

  5. October 25, 2012 9:15 pm

    now i really want to reread this book! in fact, when I read it, I’d gotten it from from the library. .. and now i just want to buy a copy.

    anyone who isn’t sure if Chabon is for them, Gentlemen of the Road is an excellent place to start, as is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Gentlemen is shorter, but with lots of strange words, and Amazing Adventures is longer, but with much much easier language. Both are beautiful.

    • October 26, 2012 10:53 am

      Redhead – I want to re-read Kavalier and Clay. It’s been a long time (7 years? 8?) and I remember absolutely loving it, but few-to-none of the specifics of *why*.

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