Book review – Genocidal poofter or inspirational king?

2014-05-25 15:00

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Lion Heart by Justin Cartwright

Bloomsbury

328 pages

R225 at kalahari.com

He is known as one of England’s most revered and famous kings. But who exactly was Richard the Lionheart? The elderly, almost Pickwickian Lord Huntingdon, pillar of the House of Lords and one of this novel’s memorable characters, describes him as “a genocidal, red-haired poofter”.

Historical records portray him as a fearsome enemy, a charismatic leader, a great Christian knight fighting against the “evil” Saracens, a supremely courageous fighter and an inspirational king. He was the ultimate English hero (although he spoke mostly French and lived most of his life out of England).

“Richard the Lionheart was 15 in 1173, when he took part in a rebellion against his own father in Normandy. By the time Richard reached the Holy Land, he had been fighting nonstop for 18 years. This man knew no other life.”

The modern-day hero of multiaward-winning SA-born Justin Cartwright’s compelling new novel, Lion Heart, is called Richard Cathar, named Richard because his late hippie, druggy father “with a frayed-at-the-edges charm” had hero-worshipped Richard I of England.

But his son Richie says he himself can’t make up his mind if Richard the Lion heart was a “giant, red-haired mass murderer, anti-Semite and sadomasochist, or one of the greatest and most romantic kings of all time, a brave warrior and a dab hand at the courtly songs of the langue d’oc”.

The novel tells the story of Richie – who is ironically called a kind of intellectual Dan Brown – in his academic quest for the final resting place of the True Cross, first discovered by Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, in the depths of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Richie believes Lionheart brought this relic back to France after finally receiving it in Jerusalem from the mighty emperor Saladin, his Muslim adversary.

The novel cuts back and forth in time between Richard I’s true exploits, his captivity in 1193, his final release, his triumphant return to England after defeating the Saracens (although he failed in his final quest to capture Jerusalem) and Richie’s contemporary scholarly journey tracing the king’s footsteps to find out where he buried the True Cross.

The settings are wonderful – Jerusalem, Jordan, France, Greece, England – conjured up by Cartwright in brilliantly evocative prose that not only takes the reader almost physically into the heart of each place, but captures its essence.

Richie travels first to Jerusalem, where outside his bedroom window “the early almond blossom is offering itself promiscuously all over the city” and observes how “the dawns of Jerusalem are beautiful – lavender and rose and ground cumin...”

Here, Richie meets and falls in love with Noor, a Canadian-Arab journalist on assignment in the Middle East who is subsequently captured by terrorists and brutally raped.

On his return to England, he now finds himself involved with British counterintelligence because it turns out Noor is a Canadian spy.

Apart from the enormous enjoyment I got from reading Lion Heart, I learnt so much too – about the Crusades, about the unbelievably brutal battles between Arabs and Christians, about how the reasons for war don’t ever really change, and how we all continually puzzle over the meaning of love and life.

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