Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Emperor by Colin Thubron

Emperor by Colin Thubron is a mightily ambitious novel. It describes the conversion to Christianity of the emperor Constantine the Great, the circumstances of which are unknown. But this was an event that changed human history. This single event elevated Christianity, previously a minority sect amongst many, to the status of official religion of the Roman Empire. Thus it became the religion of a continent, a status it has never lost.

What is so original about Colin Thubron’s book, however, is its form. The novel is constructed as if it were a sheaf of documents by different authors. The entries are arranged by date, but are constructed as if assembled from a jumble of material stuffed at random by an incompetent clerk into a satchel that was then lost. The author thus assumes many voices, many forms, many perspectives.

Constantine has embarked upon the final phase of his conquest of Rome to establish himself the undisputed leader of the empire. He was in York when his father died and Maxentius, his wife’s brother, usurped the throne. Constantine must therefore raise an army and conquer his way to power all the way from the north of England to the imperial capital. Emperor takes us from the boundaries of Verona to the outskirts of Rome, the progress described via the jottings of several characters.

Constantine’s own journal is the centre-piece. In it the emperor muses on military tactics and the progress of war. But we also discover a sensitive, emotional character often preoccupied with significance deeper than the mundane. The letters and jottings of Fausta, Constantine’s wife and sister of the pretender Maxentius, show how little those involved are able to express or trust their own feelings. Constantine is besotted with her, but she always demands a distance. We are never completely sure of her motives – or loyalties, for that matter.

Synesius, Constantine’s secretary, has seen it all before. His often witty musings offer both context and interpretation. Hosius, Bishop of Cordoba, is the Christian voice that travels with Constantine’s army. His reactions to events are always fundamentally different from what the other characters expect or predict. And there are other minor characters, lesser voices that add further detail and different perspectives.

One of the book’s great achievements is its highly effective portrayal of the pan-European character of Constantine’s alliance and its consequent religious diversity. It seems that there was a real free market in Gods at the time and we quickly feel the need for a unifying cultural and ideological force to match the political and military presence of Constantine. And so the Emperor’s personal needs and pragmatic concerns suddenly coincide and the charismatic presence of Hosius assists.

Overall I felt that Emperor did not quite achieve the ambition of its inspiration, however. In the end the originality of the form became a limitation, constricting the author’s ability to convey both background and context. The story he told was considerably bigger than the form could sustain and so the climax was unsatisfactory. As criticisms go, however, it’s a very small one.

View this book on amazon

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