Adventures in the Diaspora


A Tale of Adventure
By Michael Chabon
204 pages. Del Rey/Ballantine Books. $2195

Michael Chabon’s new novel, Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure, is a romping swashbuckler brimming with fanciful characters and sword-clashing action. There is an evil, usurping king and the fiery-tempered prince whose parents he has murdered; there are royal war elephants, a cyclopean mahout, thieves, prostitutes, and pillaging Northmen. There is even a merchant of Venice. Oy!

Originally serialized in The New York Times Magazine, Gentlemen of the Road moves at a jaunty pace, each chapter introducing a new character or twist in the plot. The novel opens with a deliciously choreographed fight scene that introduces its protagonists, two Jewish swords-for-hire, Zelikman ben Solomon, a lanky, flaxen-haired Frankish physician, and Amram, a grizzled, copper-skinned Abyssinian giant, close friends traveling the Silk Road around the year 950.

The story takes off when the two friends find themselves entrusted with the safety of a foul-mouthed “stripling,” the young heir of the deposed king of Jewish Khazaria. When they discover that the last of the youth’s relatives have been murdered, they must decide what to do with their troublesome charge. “A gentleman of the road worthy of the title would convey him to the nearest slave market and see what price he fetched,” Zelikman muses. “I fear that explains our overall lack of success at this game, Zelikman,” Amram says. “Because I’m not going to do that.” Instead, they allow themselves to be persuaded into doing the unthinkable; they “stoop to politics,” as Amram puts it, and help the young prince raise an army to avenge his father’s death and reclaim the throne of the Khazar Empire.

Betrayal, murder, a quest for retribution: this may sound like standard fare for an adventure story, but the genre’s well-known tropes take on new meaning in Chabon’s hands. Like his other recent novels—the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which was published last May—Gentlemen of the Road is an exploration of genre fiction’s capacity for Jewish storytelling. In Kavalier & Clay, the Holocaust becomes the backdrop for the creation of the American superhero, a golem in spandex pants and cape; and with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon turns his talents to the hardboiled detective story, setting a perplexing murder with global implications in an imaginary Yiddish homeland in Sitka, Alaska.

Chabon, who is rightly praised for the restlessness and fecundity of his imagination, seems to be moving toward a unifying vision of Jewish diaspora in these novels. In the afterword to Gentlemen of the Road he writes: “In the relation of the Jews to the land of their origin, in the ever-extending, ever-thinning cord, braided from the freedom of the wanderer and the bondage of exile, that binds a Jew to his Home, we can make out the unmistakable signature of adventure.”

The sorrows and pleasures of exile may seem a strangely anachronistic theme for a Jewish writer working in the age of Israel and the Law of Return, but they are central to Chabon’s fiction. In Kavalier & Clay, two cousins meet in mid-flight, one from Nazi-occupied Prague, the other from himself; and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is set on the eve of reversion, when Yiddish Sitka returns to the U.S. government, spilling its 3.2 million Jewish inhabitants into an Israel-less diaspora. (Israel has been defeated by its enemies only three months after its creation.) Both novels tell the stories of close friendships between men whose only home is with each other and with those they love. “My homeland is in my hat. It’s in my ex-wife’s tote bag,” Detective Meyer Landsman says toward the end of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Zelikman and Amram share a similar philosophy. Like Landsman, they must make their home in homelessness—they are, in other words, citizens of the diaspora.

Beneath Zelikman and Amram’s happy-go-lucky antics is the suggestion of painful displacement. A memory of the brutalization of Zelikman’s family is awakened by the description of his weapon, an oversized surgical lancet:

It had been forged to order by the same maker of instruments who supplied the rabbi-physicians of Zelikman’s family with their scalpels and bloodletting fleams, in sly defiance of Frankish law, which forbade Jews to bear arms even in self-defense, even when an armed gang of ruffians dragged your mother and sister screaming from their kitchen and did rank violence to them in the street while you, a boy, were obliged to stand bladeless by. Violence, circumstance, the recklessness of the apostate and a chance meeting with an African soldier of fortune had driven Zelikman to hire himself out as a killer of men...

And what of the African soldier of fortune? It is mentioned in passing that his wife is no longer living and that his daughter has been kidnapped.

These biographical details are spots of darkness in the otherwise exuberant narrative, but they are never fully developed. Instead, the reader is left with the suspicion that they may be little more than brief nods to what the historian Salo Baron famously referred to as the modern “lachrymose” conception of Jewish history as a record of persecution and suffering. It certainly seems that Zelikman and Amram have inherited a distinctly modern sense of disillusionment from their fictional ancestors, Kavalier, Clay, and Landsman. For Zelikman, the imperfections of the world can be “attributed to creation’s having occurred without divine will or intention,” and even the young prince blithely convicts God of pettiness for taking blasphemy to heart, when “any God who could be discountenanced by the words of human beings was by definition not worthy of reverence.”

Is it anachronistic to put these words in the mouths of 10th-century Jews? The question seems beside the point. Gentlemen of the Road is not an historical novel, but a spirited romp through a world that exists somewhere between the Silk Road of history and the Hester Street of our memory. If at times the narrative seems rushed or too hastily sketched, it is a tribute to Chabon’s gifts as a storyteller that this short novel leaves us wishing it were longer.