The Relic Master by Christopher Buckley
Christopher Buckley has written a number of excellent novels, mostly with a strong strain of contemporary political satire. His skewering of US political and business elites, and the symbiotic media are hilarious and cringeworthy. (You should definitely read his earlier novels.)
His latest novel departs from the current political scene (and who can blame him—how can a satirist compete with the real life spectacle of Donald Trump seriously contending for the US Presidency?). Fortunately, he does not depart from his smooth, dry wit, and eye for human folly.
The Relic Master is set in Europe at the turn of the sixteenth century. Long before the excesses of Imperial America, Europe was rife with political and religious power plays, petty tyrants, religious divisions—and hype, fraud, and conspiracy of all kinds. We feel right at home.
The Relic Master himself is a professional purveyor of religious artifacts, pieces of the cross, thorns from the crown of thorns, bones of martyrs, and so on. By 1500, this tradition had evolved to become one of the more absurd and shameful manifestations of Western Christianity, engendering a large trade supplied by unscrupulous fakers and fueled by the less-than-pious whims of ambitious elites. Through the eyes of an “honest “relic hunter, Buckley gives us a view of the hype and fraud rife in the trade, and makes it familiar in our own age of excess.
The story itself involves the most famous relic of that or any other period, the Shroud of Turin. As the Relic Master notes, there were dozens or even hundreds of “shrouds”, each allegedly the one true artifact, and most of them cheap and obvious fakes. As an experienced relic man, he knows how fakes are made, and how fast buck artists get rich from them.
The Relic Master works as an agent for two of the political powers in Germany, and with one thing and another ends up in deep trouble and forced into a crazy scheme to steal the Shroud of Turin itself. This plot isn’t exactly sensible, but in the setting and with the comic undertones, it is a nice vehicle for touring Germany at the start of the reformation, and meeting various historical figures along the way, improbably including Albrecht Durer and Paracelsus.
Buckley’s characters and plot live up to his earlier works. Everyone is a bit nutty, but most have good in them, and even the worst can be seen to be flawed human beings. He clearly has spent time visiting Switzerland and Germany and the historic churches and towns in the area, and has researched the time of Martin Luther. This gives the novel solid historical footing, and he does a great job portraying everyday life.
It is interesting to watch as Buckley does a careful dance around the religious issues so relevant to the plot. He makes extremely clear the questionable morality of many of the practices of the time, including the sales of indulgences and greedy relic trade. For that matter, he pulls no punches about the violence of the period, the excesses of the wealthy, or the frequent scapegoating of Jews and women.
At the same time, he is generous in his portrayal of the anxieties and hopes of ordinary people, and the pious desires and aspirations that motivate the belief in relics and the power of prayer and indulgence. We can look back on some of the shenanigans and see them as obvious nonsense, but Buckley helps us see why people of the time might want them to be true.
We know all about the power of wishful thinking over rationality in our own time. So we are inclined to be sympathetic.
He actually does a pretty skillful job to be ambiguous on some contentions issues, especially about the provenance of the Shroud of Turin itself. Despite overwhelming evidence that it was created in the fifteenth century, even today it remains an object of veneration and is vigorously defended by some as a real artifact.
Buckley gives you plenty of reason to think the shroud must be a fraud (not least by explaining how to make one), yet even the most cynical characters in the book are awed by it and think it must be a true relic. This leaves the reader the liberty and room to view it how you want, and perhaps to respect other views.
Buckley does add spice to the mystery by suggesting that there might be excellent counterfeits of the original, inviting us into head spinning speculation about faked fakes, faked fake fakes, and so on. Perhaps the Turin artifact is “the real fake”, worthy of at least some form of admiration.
But let’s not get too deep into all that. This is a fairly light story, well written and fun to read.
- Christopher Buckley, The Relic Master, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2015.
Sunday Book Review