John the Pupil by David Flusfeder - book review: A beautifully measured portrait of a pilgrim's progress


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The Independent Culture

The cover blurb for his seventh novel compares David Flusfeder with Umberto Eco and Quentin Tarantino – which is both wholly understandable and irksomely spurious. While there is a similar intellectual chicanery and a ludic approach to form, the brevity and compression of John the Pupil, its spaces, make this a lazy comparison. Lazy because this is a novel far more original and ambitious than such a description would suggest.

The titular John is taken from his village as a boy and placed under the tutelage of Roger Bacon, the Franciscan scholar. There he gains the trust of his master, until Bacon sends him, along with two comrades, on a pilgrimage. With him, John will take Bacon's celebrated Opus Majus, a "book that contains the world" and deliver it to the Pope.

John is a devout and his travelogue composed of hagiographies, musings on theology and philosophy, and the moral, sexual and physical trials that John and his two companions face as they traverse Europe. Flusfeder's prose brings these disparate strands together; his sentences elegant, unusual, often beautifully and brilliantly measured. John's voice is convincing and melancholic, while the descriptions of the privations of the road, and its very real dangers, are expertly handled. Yet Flusfeder's intentions are more than the production of an erudite road trip.

John the Pupil's narrative is bolstered by a series of additions: a Note On The Text, an Afterword and a series of notes, all written by the editor/translator of John's tale. This textual apparatus offers a commentary on, and recalculation of, what we have been reading. The notes play with our knowledge of what has happened, and also often refer to events we have not yet been shown. They point out flaws in John's recording of the events, and ask us not to leap to "anachronistic conclusions". They offer possibilities we had not considered.

This possibility adds depth and weight to the novel's primary concerns of belief and how the acquisition of knowledge impacts upon that belief. We have been warned off reading with modern eyes, but it is hard not to see all too much of our contemporary conundrums wrapped up in John's. His narrative is made of diversions and other people's words – quoted, stolen – the whole thing curated by himself, and later the editor/translator. Can we really believe it? Does he – John or the translator – even believe it?

This uncertainty brings out further questions – What should I allow others to know? How honest can I be? How much of my experience is my own? – questions that are explored with generosity and rigour in this superbly written and intellectually stimulating novel.