Norwich 1144 – A Jew’s Tale by Bill Albert

jews-tale-front-coverIn the preface to his latest novel, Norwich 1144 – A Jew’s Tale (Mousehold Press, 256 pages), Bill Albert recalls the encounter that inspired his story:

“I was in a sixteenth century synagogue in Safed, a town 1000 metres above the Sea of Galilee. The rabbi, who looked as if he had been with the building since it was built, asked me where I lived. I told him I lived in Norwich, England. He looked alarmed, and then without missing a beat he turned and spat dryly over his shoulder three times. Having thereby ensured that the Evil Eye was placated, he told me the story of William of Norwich.

“In March, 1144, the body of William, a 13-year old boy, was discovered in Thorpe Wood, near Norwich. His death was blamed on the small community of Jews in the city who were alleged to have killed him as part of a religious ceremony. Mob violence erupted against the Jews. About five years later, Thomas of Monmouth, a monk in the Cathedral Priory, wrote a book that helped to transform William into a local saint. This was the first documented accusation of the ritual murder in Europe of a Christian child by Jews – what was to become known, in somewhat different circumstances, as the Blood Libel.

“The story of William of Norwich has echoed down the centuries in a great many similar accusations and accompanying riots, pogroms and in wholesale genocide. As the rabbi in Safed demonstrated, the tale remains alive as a key event in the long history of Jewish persecution.”

That meeting took place nearly fifty years ago and Albert has clearly thought long and hard about the subject. However, he does not fall into the classic historical novel trap of trying to tell you everything he knows about the scant facts and more elaborate factoids surrounding the legend. Instead, he takes the key settings of William’s story, the wildwood where his body was found, the priory where his sanctity was manufactured, and the city that latched upon his murder to legitimize xenophobia, weaving them together in the life of the narrator, a foundling, twisted in tongue and limb, who all too briefly becomes William’s friend.

‘Joseph The Fool’, as he styles himself, is an almost picaresque hero whose progress from abandoned waif to the sanctuary of the cloister and back to being an outcast provides both a compelling adventure story and a plausible explanation of how the Blood Libel was born. It’s a grim tale, but one told with dry wit and such deep compassion that the reader is never overwhelmed by the multiple injustices perpetrated in the name of profit and piety. The wit in particular is subtly done, serving both to highlight and alleviate the distressing events Albert describes.

Joseph’s first refuge is with an ascetic hermit, Ederick,

“a large, carelessly put together man, his mouth inhabited by a few broken teeth, his skin dyed by soot and his hair and beard a single woven mat. He wore a long tattered coat of animal skins belted with a leather strap. His feet were shod in strips of hide.” (He) “was not taken much with laughter, as his former vocation had imprinted upon him a prohibition against such boisterous frivolity. Life for him was serious and extremely painful. Denial of the flesh, indeed the mortification of the flesh, was his road to Salvation. He wished to experience the torment of his Saviour. Unfortunately, I was compelled to share in his joyful suffering.”

That last sentence is typical, eliciting a wince and a wry smile at the same time, giving the lie to the conventional axiom about avoiding adverbs, and skewering the perversity of human being with a deft oxymoron.

The same technique of an understated coda puncturing the preceding sentences can be seen in the following paragraph, again dealing with Ederick’s obsession with mortifying the flesh:

“When I failed to speak so that he could comprehend I was beaten. When I cried I was beaten. And if I did nothing I was beaten. After he had finished he would put down the willow switch, hug me tight, his whole body vibrating against me as if taken with the dance of St. Vitas. He would then weep and thank the Lord. Depending on how the mood took him, he might, in all weathers, strip naked and proceed to excoriate himself with a six-roped flail. I presume he did not want to deny himself the pleasure of the true penitent.”

The humour is not always dry though, quite literally in a painfully hilarious episode when Joseph takes refuge in a bath house, the principal business of which has nothing to do with cleanliness, a scene that needs to be read in its entirety to be properly appreciated. The technique he uses here is one that will be familiar to anyone who has read Albert’s other novels (Desert Blues and Castle Garden), for the author has a unique talent for making horrible events funny without diminishing the underlying nastiness of what he is describing.

As the above excerpts suggest, Albert does not duck the need to create an authentic mindset for a story set 900 years in the past, when values, aspirations, and expectations were very different from those prevailing today. But his adept re-imagining of other attitudes in other times is never at the expense of accessibility or credibility. The book is peopled with a large cast of well-realized and readily recognizable characters, from Joseph’s disreputable but loyal chum, Marcus, to the self-serving and hypocritical monk, Thomas, who refashions William’s alleged martyrdom to suit his own purposes, and the sinister Beggar Maker, a bandit so thoroughly evil that he would make the Sheriff of Nottingham blench with embarrassment at the depths of human depravity.

The other great authenticity challenge for a novel set in the distant past is to create a believable wordscape free from both intrusive anachronisms and cod archaisms. By dint of keeping the language spare and making judicious use of words and phrases that have fallen out of fashion (‘shod’, ‘coney’, ‘bold’, ‘befoul’, ‘step quickly’, ‘admonish’, ‘hasten’, ‘quiet’ as a verb), Albert crafts a style that does the job admirably, and he has a neat trick of using what I take to be regional quirks of speech (‘playing at’ for ‘deceiving’, ‘them’ for ‘those’, ‘he do’ for ‘he does’, ‘be’ instead of ‘is’ in the present indicative and continuous) that lend his dialogue an earthy immediacy.

The reality of daily life in the twelfth century is vivid and well imagined, evoking the terrors of the wilderness (bandits, wild boar, hunger, cold, other people), the sights and sounds and smells of medieval streets (“voice babble and calling out, the axel-groan of carts . . . hoofs clattering . . . bodies shoving and bundling past”), the precarious balancing act required of a minority living amongst a hostile host community (resentment and hatred vying with the compelling need to stay safe), and the slightly oppressive, artificial haven of the priory (an idyll subverted by envy, malice, boredom, and ambition).

In short, the whole thing is totally convincing, conjuring a distant world that is as real and immediate and accessible as our own. Above all though, Norwich 1144 – A Jew’s Tale is an immaculately plotted yarn that gives nothing away but let’s you understand little by little that the author knew exactly where he was heading from the start. I’m not going to give anything away, either. Just read it. It’s an excellent book, entertaining and profound, and no less beguiling for dealing with such a rebarbative subject.

Charles Davis, author of Standing At The Crossroads 2011

 

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