Monday, June 19, 2017

Wolf on a String, by Benjamin Black

Henry Holt, 2017
309 pp


" is called a wolf on a string... Isn't it a strange thing that two parts of the same instrument, instead of making delightful music together, should be so disharmoniously at odds?" -- 189

When I saw that Benjamin Black (aka John Banville)  had a new novel out, I ordered it tout suite and didn't wait too long after it arrived to delve into it.  Black has given me some of the best hours of my crime-fiction reading career with his Quirke novels set in 1950s Dublin, which I thought were just terrific. So I rushed to start this one, and while it starts out in a fashion not unlike a crime fiction novel with the main character stumbling onto a murder, as I got more into it I realized that there's much more going on here than just crime. It reads to me as much more of a historical novel of court intrigue that looks at a young man who arrives in Prague and finds himself unknowingly caught up in a power struggle and has no idea who he can trust; flying blind, he has to make choices without really knowing what's going on or indeed, just what might be at stake as he becomes a pawn in the players' end game.

The story begins in 1599, and young Christian Stern has made it to Prague. Barely "five and twenty," Stern, who is recalling this part of his life decades later,  had just recently graduated from the University of Würzburg, where he'd "amassed a great store of learning," and served as tutor to "the dull-witted sons of the the city's rich merchants." Ready to move along, Stern arrives in Prague
"... in the reign of Rudolf II, of the House of Hapsburg, King of Hungary and Bohemia, Archduke of Austria and ruler of the Holy Roman Empire."
In Prague he'd hoped to
"win the Emperor's favor and secure a place among the scores of learned men who labored at His Majesty's pleasure and under his direction, in the fabulous hothouse that was Hradčany castle,"  
 including the "wise savants" Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler.

On Stern's very first night in the city, unable to sleep in the lice-infested Blue Elephant inn where he'd ended up, he made his way through the streets with a stranger, who after a heavy night of drinking, suddenly takes off, leaving Stern alone to get lost in the "maze of winding streets" while trying to find his way home. It was then that Stern found himself in Golden Lane, and stumbled onto the body of a young woman "where it lay a-sprawl in the snow."  He tries to lift her up and in doing so realizes that her throat had been cut.  Abandoning the body, he finds his way to a sentry to report his findings.  The sentry is reluctant but Stern eventually convinces him to follow him to the body, where the sentry makes a stunning discovery: the body doesn't belogn to a whore as he'd originally thought, but rather it's the young daughter of "the Emperor's sawbones and one of his chief wizards." Christian finds himself under arrest for her murder and thrown into a cell, but is saved by the Emperor himself, who now wants him to discover who killed this young girl, who just also happened to have been his mistress. Christian's life greatly improves with this strange commission, but as time goes by and another death occurs, he makes no inroads into the case at hand, realizing that nobody is telling him anything.  He's also quite naïve, with an "innocent heart," and while the reader gets the picture early on, this poor guy absolutely doesn't get until it's too late that he's being set up, used, and made a player in a game with high stakes.   He will eventually have to choose in whom he can place his trust, and hope for his own sake that he's made the right choice.

Emperor Rudolf II 

In the Author's Note section of this book, Black/Banville describes his novel as "a historical fantasy," saying that "real life at the court of Rudolf II was entirely phantasmagorical," which is brought out very nicely in this book. Alongside the scientists Tycho Brahe and Kepler, Rudolf surrounds himself with magicians, prophets, astrologers and alchemists; we are reminded from time to time of the "magus" John Dee and then there's Edward Kelley (who is now locked away in a castle at Most), who spends his time "writing a voluminous treatise on the philosopher's stone" while imprisoned, and much, much more.

One thing I learned while reading this book is that I really need to follow my own advice about not having expectations going into a novel. I let myself down in a big way by assuming this was going to be another crime novel, so when there was seemingly little going on, I started getting quite frustrated about the snail's pace this book seemed to be taking. Once I came to the conclusion that this book was more intrigue and less crime though, I had to do a serious rethink, and as it turns out, I ended up liking this quite a bit for what it is, rather than bemoaning what it was not.   Lesson learned.

While it's necessary to wait until the very end for all of the answers, and I was not as satisfied as I probably should have been, it was still a fun, entertaining and rather dark read.  Historical fiction fans will very likely enjoy this one, especially people who like stories set in Prague.


See this real review by Clare Clark writing for  The Guardian, but do NOT  read it until after you've finished the novel.

fiction from Ireland