Giulio Leoni, ‘The Kingdom of Light’

Kingdom of Light“If you love ‘The Name of the Rose’ then you must read ‘The Kingdom of Light'” said the review on the back cover, so obediently I did. I wish people wouldn’t say that sort of thing, and I wish I didn’t fall for it as often as I do. It’s more or less tantamount to saying ‘If you like a brilliant book which has been hailed as a modern classic, then read this one because it’s trying to be a bit the same’.

‘The Kingdom of Light’ gives us Dante Alighieri as sleuth, which is a very tempting premise if, like me, you’re interested in how gifted writers, scientists and thinkers might have lived and interacted with the people around them. In other words, how does a genius behave and think? What makes a great poet? Do such people see the world differently?

I’m not sure there’s much of an answer to those questions in this book. Dante is a man of intelligence, a persistent man and one who prefers to treat people humanely. I found I couldn’t really get much more of a sense of him than that. One reason was that I kept getting distracted by the continual violence of his reactions: he seemed to be frequently on a kind of emotional roller-coaster of despair, desire, disgust, terror, or rage. Often his emotions had physical symptoms of trembling or dizziness. He seemed to pass out a lot. I don’t know whether this is some sort of cultural difference – I’m hesitant to invoke the stereotypical over-emotional Italian – or just an attempt to portray a man of strong feelings, but either way I found it jarring.

I also kept running into odd sentences and descriptions in the prose which seemed contradictory or occasionally incomprehensible. If you write “Hamid stood silently in a corner. He was sunk in prayer, bent over on his little rug.” then I stop paying attention to the story and start wondering how anyone can achieve both postures at once. The problem is that it’s very hard to tell whether something is a fault of the original text or a translation problem. I didn’t feel I totally trusted the translator. The opening of the main narrative begins ‘They had turned away from the houses beside a cottage on the road to Pisa’. Houses beside a cottage? What’s the difference between the two sorts of building, and why are both mentioned? Why is this a significant place for them to turn away (by which the author seems to mean that they turned off the road or took a different road)? I couldn’t help wondering if the Italian words which had been translated as ‘houses’ and ‘cottage’ would have given more information to an Italian-speaker than the translation did to me.

On the plus side, it is a vividly-imagined world, with a wealth of historical detail, and the themes of conspiracy, murder and politics blend with mystical science, philosophy and religion to give a plausible picture of what was on the medieval mind. Be warned, though: the author doesn’t give you much in the way of background information as he goes but expects you to keep up. If you don’t know who the Guelphs and the Ghibellines were, I’d strongly suggest finding out first, since the story is set in an Italy where for decades the key political factor has been the conflict between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. The ripples from that conflict, and in particular from the career of the great Emperor Frederick II form the heart of this novel. I wondered if Italian children are taught Guelphs and Ghibellines in the same way that British children are taught, well, whatever’s fashionable from British history and if therefore Italian readers would have been on more familiar territory. I had a rough idea of the history, enough such that the context of the story made sense, but I could have done with a little more hand-holding in places, not so much for characters and events but in terms of the details of how historical Florence functioned and the different roles in its government. There is a glossary with some historical background at the end but I confess I didn’t find it till I’d finished the book: I could have done with being told it was there.

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