Revised after being inspired by a comment from Bookstooge to talk about something I really should’ve included initially.
by Dennis Maley
Kindle Edition, 314 pg.
Read: January 19 – 23, 2018
Infamous papal indulgence-seller, Tetzel is falling out of favor with the German people — which means economic trouble for him, as well as those he’s paying to assist him. One such person is David, a little person (“dwarf” in sixteenth-century eyes), a con man, juggler, and entertainer. He gets himself in some legal trouble and draws upon his dubious ethnicity and a character he played to some success in the past and convinces the court that he’s a member of one of the Lost Tribe of Israel, living in Arabia, sent to Europe to secure partners in a new Crusade. To stay out of legal trouble, he has to embark on a tour of various cities to try to recruit the help of assorted kings, bankers and Bishops of Rome. Along the way, David finds a kindred spirit in Diogo, a womanizing actor hiding out as a deckhand on a merchant ship. Diogo joins David as an assistant, translator, and more.
The backdrop to these antics is a loose survey of early sixteenth-century history of Europe — the politics, diplomacy, and wars the characterize the relations between France, Spain, England, the Holy Roman Empire, German princes, German peasants, and the Popes. As I said, it’s a loose recounting, told mostly in summary form with a conversational tone.
Watching these two lie, deceive and sneak their way through the hearts and purses of Europe is a good time. I could have used a couple of female characters that were better drawn, but David and Diogo are an amusing pair. At one point, a rift between the two arises and one of them begins to believe their own press (among other things) and their lives get more interesting.
Despite the title, there’s really nothing that is satirical about religion — true believers, anyway. David and Diogo are shown as scoundrels throughout. Tetzel’s appearance is fairly matter-of-fact about what he did, Tyndale and Luther are mentioned frequently, but only for what they actually did (true, colored by popular mis-characterizations of their work, but not done to insult/defame/mock them). The various Popes and Cardinal Wolsey are discussed in terms of their political machinations (mostly having to do with becoming/staying Pope). When it comes to people of actual religious belief (Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Jewish or Kabbalistic), Maley is pretty-hands off, he doesn’t comment at all about the belief — yeah, several people are duped by these scoundrels, but that doesn’t mean that their faith isn’t real.
In the Acknowledgements, the author states that this “book’s purpose is to entertain. The standard of its scholarship is low. I am not a historian.” It’d be nice if that came before the text, so I didn’t spend so much time hemming and hawing about some of the history/depictions of historical characters.
Actually, now that I mention it — this novel would’ve been stronger without all the historical ramblings — yes, they were amusingly told. But it added nothing to the story. Not just because as a reader, you need to take his history with a generous helping of salt; but all the history primarily served to distract the reader and detract from the story of these con men. Yes, some of it — some — was helpful for some context, but the other 97-95% of the historical material could have been excised to help the rest of the novel.
Nevertheless, this was a funny story with some amusing characters. This wasn’t a typical religious-fraud satire, although it easily could’ve been — and that’s to be commended. Like many satires, Maley had some trouble toward the end and the plot threatened to get away from him — but he was able to bring things back into shape by the conclusion, which is a pretty neat trick, too. Flawed, but entertaining, it’s worth a shot.
Disclaimer: I received this book from the author in exchange for my honest opinion in this post. I thank him for the shot.