Sunday, March 09, 2008
Deus Lo Volt!
Our book today is Deus Lo Volt! by Evan S. Connell, the cover of which calls it a novel, although this is a fairly simplistic understatement. In reality, it's an imaginary chronicle of the Crusades. Not a novel, because it does only a handful of the things novels do, and those mostly by accident. And not an actual chronicle, because the examples of those that survive are all known, and this isn't one of them. But rather, a scrupulously realized imaginary chronicle.
Readers familiar with Connell (we revere him here at Stevereads) will also necessarily be familiar with this kind of conundrum. Like no other first-rate author alive today, he continues to question the shapes and natures of our accepted genres; his essays read like treatises, his reviews read like private correspondence, his Custer book Son of the Morning Star reads like a symphony, and Deus Lo Volt! reads exactly like a contemporary account of the Crusades - and thereby envelopes the reader in a rich, profuse, and thrillingly bewildering alien world.
An alien world populated by familiar names - Saladin is here, and Richard Lion-Heart, Jerusalem is here - and vast abundances of Connell's spikey, beautiful prose:
We visited a deserted hermitage among the rocks and saw a garden that was laid out by these monks. A pleasant stream trickled through it. We walked down the slope and entered a grotto in which we found a lime-washed oratory with a red cross made of baked clay. In another grotto we saw the skeletons of two men who lay as though asleep, the bones of their hands folded on their ribs. They were laid toward the east like those consigned in earth.
Of course, any account of the Crusades, contemporary or imaginary, will have an unintended resonance in the present-day world, since, after a refreshingly long dormant period, those same Crusades have just recently sprung to full and bloody life again, with a religious zealot Christian ruler making war on the evil Saracens, to punish them for their wrongdoing. The 300 square miles on which these new battles are being fought (and on which God-fearing young people on both sides are dying, now as then) are the same in 2008 as they were in 1208, so Crusade books come freighted with sad ironies. Connell's book is no different - here is his Saladin's answer to the Emperor Frederick's threat of war:
Our people flourish in numerous realms, Babylon with its dependencies, Gesirah with its castles, India, others too numerous to mention. The limitless residue of Saracenic kings exalts us. The caliph of Baghdad, should we appeal to him, would rise from his throne and hasten to our aid. But if you have set your mind upon war, then we will meet and destroy you.
All of this is handled with Connell's trademark steep intelligence and canny eye for detail. This is part of the reason why it's simplistic to refer to Deus Lo Volt! as a novel: this book is every bit as historical as Son of the Morning Star, just as Son of the Morning Star is every bit as novelistic as this one. Connell is using the boundaries of traditional narrative to play his deeper games - small wonder, then, that the timid publishing world really doesn't know what to make of him.
Luckily, the single thing all of his books have in common is their shining wordplay, the effortless way the smallest mundane details are woven into the narrative in a way that's both droll and meaningful. We smile even as we're carried along:
Or there was a certain knight hunched in a ditch attending to business when some Turk galloped at him with a lowered lance. Others perceiving his danger cried out for the knight to flee, but all unfastened he could not. Then he clutched a stone that he aimed and threw and struck this enemy on the temple. So the Turk dropped off his horse and broke his neck and died. Then the knight caught the horse, mounted, and rode back to camp. God directs the aim of those who believe.
If you need any further proof of the truth of that final sentence, read that paragraph out loud and really hear it. Strange and wonderful are the works of this author, and this book one of the strangest and most wonderful. In a literary age in which fewer and fewer writers challenge their readers, the ones who do - and Evan S. Connell is the best of them - must be treasured. Find a copy of Deus Lo Volt! and prepare for nothing less than an adventure.