Why is it that new centuries and millenniums seem to bring out a thirst for moral certitudes, for struggles to the death between the forces of good and evil? Though such battles today tend to lack the apparently neat ethical demarcations that characterized those of the past, anyone who has switched on a television or scanned the movie pages lately can find ample fare to sate this hunger. Biblical films are pulling in audiences, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” is getting a luxe (and feverishly anticipated) cinematic treatment and even gladiator flicks seem to be making a comeback — though that phenomenon may reflect a hankering after guys in skirts more than anything else. And what are agents Scully and Mulder of “The X-Files” if not postmodern crusaders who famously “want to believe,” careening about on the assumption that “the truth is out there” — even if it’s a truth tangled in webs of conflicting story lines and fatally compromised by the private obsessions of whoever happens to be pursuing it?
All this comes to mind while perusing Evan S. Connell’s latest undertaking, “Deus lo volt! Chronicle of the Crusades.” (The title is Latin for “God wills it!”) Connell — the author of such masterworks of fiction and nonfiction as “Mrs. Bridge,” “Mr. Bridge” and “Son of the Morning Star” — resists labeling his work a “historical novel,” and indeed, it bears little resemblance to such essentially plot-driven fictions as, say, Richard Zimler’s “The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon” and Tracy Chevalier’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” two recent and especially beguiling examples of the genre.
More like Marguerite Yourcenar’s “Memoirs of Hadrian,” “Deus lo volt!” almost spookily reproduces, from within, the particular sensibility — spiritual, cognitive, literary — of a particular moment in history. In this case, the events unfold starting in 1096, when Pope Urban launches the crusades to free Jerusalem from the “infidels,” and are filtered through the mind of one Jean de Joinville, a descendant of the original crusaders, who attempts in the late 13th century, following the fall of Acre, to reconstruct the muddled, labyrinthine course of events. Connell claims to have invented nothing except “the fictional device of Joinville as spokesman,” relying on medieval documents for the anecdotes and exchanges recounted in “Deus lo volt!”
The result is something of a tour de force: a meticulous re-creation of the style and technique of medieval chronicles that speaks powerfully to the contemporary new historicist creed that fictions can be archives — and archives, fiction. That said, “Deus lo volt!” is also one seriously tough read. The Reading Group Guide for the book — available at bookstores or by phoning (800) 242-7737 — includes maps, genealogies and a timeline, which are sure to come in handy for those readers not gifted with a superhuman memory for seemingly countless names, battles, itineraries and intricate, shifting alliances. The book is likewise crammed with material best avoided over one’s morning latte and scone: vanquished fighters being led about by their intestines, roasted on spits and splattered with various manner of bodily effluvia.
The novel, though, rewards those who hang on to the end of its nearly 500 pages with stately prose and lofty, captivating ambition — the positively epic sense of pathos and lyricism, for example, as Acre crumbles under the assaults of Ashraf Khalil:
Houses and markets were looted, burnt, watchtowers dismantled, broken walls left to disintegrate. It is said that people throughout the East grieved over this destruction in plaintive song as they are wont to sing over tombs of their dead, bewailing a grandeur none would see again.
Brimming with accounts of heroism and depravity, faith and fanaticism, supernatural apparitions and all-too-human exploits, “Deus lo volt!” is a lovingly crafted (if challenging) exploration of the religious wars that scarred the Mediterranean early in the last millennium and a bracing and admonitory tale for the one just under way.