The Pope's Rhinoceros

Lawrence Norfolk, Author
Lawrence Norfolk, Author Harmony $25 (0p) ISBN 978-0-517-59532-9
Paperback - 574 pages - 978-0-8050-5475-0
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Set in the 16th century, Norfolk's epic second novel takes its premise from an actual event: an unsuccessful Portuguese attempt to bring a rhinoceros to Rome by ship, in order to curry political favor with Pope Leo X. But historical fact is no more than a springboard for Norfolk's extremely (perhaps excessively) elaborate and occasionally mythic fictional construction. At the novel's center is Salvestro, a somewhat reluctant soldier of fortune who becomes a steadfast companion to Bernardo, a dim-witted hulk with fearsome physical strength. After they have been used as pawns in a maze of machinations and deceptions within the Italian military, the pair escape back to Salvestro's Baltic home town; but soon afterward, they return to Italy as guides for a group of beleaguered monks. In Rome, Salvestro and Bernardo become mixed up in the attempt to procure the exotic rhinoceros, undertaking a perilous sea voyage that deposits them on an equally perilous African coast. While some may enjoy Norfolk's whirligig of deceptions and double crosses, less patient readers will find the narrative frustrating. Norfolk indulges a penchant for withholding information, and his vaguely delineated, staggeringly complex plot twists involve a huge cast of characters. As he proved in the intellectually heavyweight Lempriere's Dictionary, he's clearly a virtuoso stylist. But in the end, this novel, more a tour de force of technical mastery than a compelling narrative, impresses more than it entertains. (Sept.)
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