Tuesday 20 February 2018

Review: The Ground Is Burning by Samuel Black

Faber & Faber, €14.99

Emer O'Kelly

It sounds like a wonderful idea: take three fascinating characters from history whose dates and locations overlap, and who were in a position (possibly) to have met and interacted. Put them in a fairly well-researched novel, and wait for the sparks to fly. Except they don't.

Set in the last 30 years of the 15th Century, it plots supposedly intertwining events in the lives of four people.

We know something of the three men: Niccolo Machiavelli, born to a minor provincial scholar in a town south of Florence; Cesare Borgia, a militaristic and massively powerful megalomaniac using his position as the son of Pope Alexander VI; and Leonardo da Vinci, born illegitimate in a small town near Florence, one of the great geniuses of history.

We know nothing of the fourth main character, although she apparently did exist: Dorotea Caracciolo, a young woman of minor nobility.

Black sets out to write a novel of teeming corruption, intrigue and betrayal. In part, he succeeds: he takes the reader through some of the events of the time as the warring states of Venice, Florence and the Papacy strive for supremacy in an endlessly perverse game up and down Italy, watched all the time by the greater power of the emperor beyond all their borders.

But the problem is that the off-stage events are far more momentous than the characters caught up in them, and the straining to link the characters together in a microcosm of history ultimately defeats its author.

Apart from the utterly unbelievable Dorotea, Black is dealing with three giants in their own spheres. Machiavelli may have been minor in the overall scheme of things as the representative of his government in the tortuous negotiations; but we know that his views were to become a definition of artfully political machinations. But it was not his work as a minor public servant that gave him his place in history: it was the novel The Prince, a work that came from his own disappointment.

Had Machiavelli succeeded in his career as he believe he deserved, the legacy of The Prince might never have existed. The novel is its own contradiction due to it author's ultimate obscurity in his own terms.

Cesare Borgia was a butcher, of less importance and influence than either his father the Pope or his sister Lucrezia. Black does capture what must have been the vainglorious braggadocio of the man, but he fails to capture his voice.

He admits that he found little source material to help him, but the tiresome repetition of four-letter dialogue merely serves to make his creation of Cesare a paper cut-out as a general, a cut-throat idiot who would have stumbled and fallen at his first siege.

And while Borgia's career was cut short by fever and madness, it had its own determined success, achieved admittedly by unspeakable brutality. But brutality was the order of the day during those times (and indeed beyond).

Nor does Black make the "relationship" with the apparent catalyst of Dorotea Caracciolo seem credible. He weaves a tale of Dorotea as an intelligence agent for Borgia in his dealings with the Republics. Initially a willing mistress, despite having been kidnapped on her bridal journey, she comes to hate him, and falls in love with the gentle and mild-natured Leonardo, who has been employed by her protector in building projects. She even manages to seduce the openly homosexual Leonardo into a one-night stand, something fairly insulting to homosexuality. It is apparently historically accurate that Borgia kidnapped a woman of that name before she could be married to her promised husband. There is apparently no record of why he did so, and Black, who manages to invent quite a lot, fails to invent a reason in this case. The suspicion has to arise that he initially intended his character as a representation of the Mona Lisa, only to be overtaken by the discovery of proof that Leonardo's immortal sitter was a wife of impeccable status and reputation.

Even more ridiculous is the weaving of the genius of Leonardo, whose life and work is so well documented, into this pointless farrago. What the author presents is a kind of "Terrible Three" as Leonardo, Machiavelli and Dorotea form a giggling alliance against the big bad wolf of Borgia.

It's all a thing of heavy-handed coincidence: the young Machiavelli watching the burning of Savonarola in Florence, and reflecting on the impermanence of political power; Borgia obsessing about the achievements of Alexander the Great, and measuring his achievements against the man who conquered the world before dying at the age of 32; and Leonardo obsessing about finding a chip of paint falling off a fresco in a monastery: will his work live, he wonders, as he realises he made such a technical error with The Last Supper.

The Ground Is Burning does no favours either to history or to literature: it strains credibility, and labours language. Leonardo, at least, deserves better than to be portrayed in such a silly and undignified piece of clumsy fluff.

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