Taking the papal bull by the horn

The Pope's Rhinoceros by Lawrence Norfolk Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 16.99

God has given us the papacy," remarked Pope Leo X when he first heard of his election. "Let us enjoy it." Enjoy it he certainly did; indeed such was his extravagance that within a year Leo had created, and sold, 1,200 new ecclesiastical offices, as well as squandering both the savings of his predecessor and his own considerable Medici fortune. Wine quite literally flowed in the Vatican fountains. Bullfights filled the day; masked balls occupied the nights. The Pope's table groaned with exotic dishes. One Venetian ambassador described a meal of 65 courses, each course consisting of three different dishes: pies of nightingales breast followed peacock's tongues with cloves and lamprey's fins cooked in a Cretan wine sauce...

Leo craved constant distraction. Dwarves and jesters proliferated; packs of French hounds and flights of Icelandic falcons were imported to fill the kennels and cages of the Pope's Campagna estates. But Leo's favourite distraction was undoubtedly his white elephant, a gift from the King of Portugal, which the Pope housed in the Belvedere Gardens. The present was such a success - and resulted in such valuable concessions to the Portuguese Empire - that soon the Spanish and the Portuguese were competing to find a similar gift.

From this rich historical material Lawrence Norfolk has created one of the most ambitious and inventive historical novels to be written since the death of Robert Graves. The plot revolves around the search for the beast with which both the Spanish and the Portuguese hope to secure a Papal bull authorising the conquest of great tracts of the New World: as the Spanish Ambassador remarks early on in the book, "The Pope craves marvels and prodigies before allies and armies. I tell you a dragon, a gryphon and a centaur would secure Africk, the Indies, and the New World, all three." As with Norfolk's last novel-extravaganza, Lempriere's Dictionary, sub-plots mushroom unrestrictedly across the globe, with rhinoceros-related intrigues from a collapsing monastery on the Baltic Coast, the jungles of Benin, the ruins of the Tuscan city of Prato, and a besieged fort in Goa.

All this is brought to life in bawdy baroque-punk prose of marvellous fluency, overlaid with a gloss of heavyweight erudition encompassing everything from obscure Renaissance sexual practices to the minutiae of canon law. Where else could you come across learned asides on the grafting of greengages, the working of glaciers and the sacred symbolism of the chameleon?

The linking element in all this - apart from the elusive rhinoceros itself - is the sea. The book positively billows with trade winds. Boats are a particular distraction: Viking freighters and byrdingers, dragon ships, scaphas and knarrs, the Papal barge and a Mocambiquan sambuq all sail in and out of the plot.

The Pope's Rhinoceros does have its faults. Norfolk's prose is so effusive, his descriptions so full and fluent, that at times the background is in danger of eclipsing the foreground: at one crucial moment in the plot, when the whole search for the papal rhino is in danger of losing itself in the rainforests of the Slave Coast, Norfolk suddenly heads off on a long discussion on fluvial hydraulics

Lempriere's Dictionary was probably the most internationally acclaimed British first novel to be published for 20 years. If there is a slight sense of disappointment with its successor, that is perhaps inevitable. Norfolk's prodigious gifts are magnificently on display, but there is a severe lack of discipline in the editing: many long-winded or extraneous passages that should have been removed have been left in, and the book is too long by at least a hundred pages. Yet these are small quibbles. For all its faults The Pope's Rhinoceros is still an astonishing achievement, little short of a masterpiece.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

    £27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

    Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

    £16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

    £17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'