Pope's Rhinoceros: A Novel


The highly acclaimed author of Lempriere's Dictionary, a New York Times Notable Book of 1992, returns with a vivid, antic, and picaresque novel spun around one of history's most bizarre chapters: the sixteenth-century attempt to procure a rhinoceros as a bribe for Pope Leo X. Set in an age of global expansion, The Pope's Rhinoceros holds up the history of the rhinoceros as a mirror to the obsessions and corrupt fantasies of the Renaissance. In February 1516, a Portuguese ship sank off the coast of Italy. The ...
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The Pope's Rhinoceros

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The highly acclaimed author of Lempriere's Dictionary, a New York Times Notable Book of 1992, returns with a vivid, antic, and picaresque novel spun around one of history's most bizarre chapters: the sixteenth-century attempt to procure a rhinoceros as a bribe for Pope Leo X. Set in an age of global expansion, The Pope's Rhinoceros holds up the history of the rhinoceros as a mirror to the obsessions and corrupt fantasies of the Renaissance. In February 1516, a Portuguese ship sank off the coast of Italy. The Nostra Senora de Ajuda had sailed 14,000 miles from the Indian kingdom of Gujarat. Her mission: to bribe the "pleasure-loving Pope" into favoring expansionist Portugal over her rival Spain with the most exotic and least likely of gifts - a living rhinoceros. This strange incident is the germ of truth within the unfettered fantasy of Lawrence Norfolk's intricately plotted, marvelously detailed, seductively intriguing second novel - a triumph of storytelling that is as arcane and erudite as it is compelling and entertaining. Moving from the herring colonies of the Baltic Sea to the West African rainforest, with a cast of characters including a resourceful ex-mercenary, Salvestro; his dimwitted comrade, Bernardo; an order of reclusive monks; and Rome's corrupt cardinals, courtesans, ambassadors, and nobles, The Pope's Rhinoceros is at once a fabulous adventure tale and a portrait of an age rushing headlong to its crisis.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Set in the 16th century, Norfolk's epic second novel takes its premise from an actual event: an unsuccessful Portuguese attempt to bring a rhinoceros to Rome by ship, in order to curry political favor with Pope Leo X. But historical fact is no more than a springboard for Norfolk's extremely (perhaps excessively) elaborate and occasionally mythic fictional construction. At the novel's center is Salvestro, a somewhat reluctant soldier of fortune who becomes a steadfast companion to Bernardo, a dim-witted hulk with fearsome physical strength. After they have been used as pawns in a maze of machinations and deceptions within the Italian military, the pair escape back to Salvestro's Baltic home town; but soon afterward, they return to Italy as guides for a group of beleaguered monks. In Rome, Salvestro and Bernardo become mixed up in the attempt to procure the exotic rhinoceros, undertaking a perilous sea voyage that deposits them on an equally perilous African coast. While some may enjoy Norfolk's whirligig of deceptions and double crosses, less patient readers will find the narrative frustrating. Norfolk indulges a penchant for withholding information, and his vaguely delineated, staggeringly complex plot twists involve a huge cast of characters. As he proved in the intellectually heavyweight Lempriere's Dictionary, he's clearly a virtuoso stylist. But in the end, this novel, more a tour de force of technical mastery than a compelling narrative, impresses more than it entertains. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Pope Leo X was one of the most power-hungry and profligate political figures of the Renaissance. Raised in the lavish Medici court, he was a difficult person to impress. Expansionist Portugal hoped to win Leo's favor by presenting him with a rhinoceros, a creature about as exotic as a unicorn in 16th-century Italy. Norfolk's second historical novel, following the critically acclaimed Lempriere's Dictionary (LJ 6/15/92), focuses on the adventures of Salvestro and Bernardo, two clueless treasure hunters who get caught up in the rhino quest. There are scores of minor characters, including Fiametta, an obscenely obese prostitute; Towser the Executioner; a Vatican housecat; and the virgin Amalia, whose white dress is impervious to Roman dirt. Pychonesque anachronisms abound: the Roman countryside is an "ectopia," and music at papal celebrations is provided by the proto-punk band King Caspar and the Mauritians. Despite its postmodern trappings, this is essentially an old-fashioned and aimless picaresque novel. For larger fiction collections.Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch., Los Angeles
Kirkus Reviews
An exhausting banquet of a book, following an improbable adventurer on an unlikely quest during the turbulent 16th century.

Norfolk has a talent for catching the strangeness and vigor of other times. His debut, Lemprière's Dictionary (1992), was set in the 18th century, and involved a wonderfully large and gaudy cast of wanderers and decadent aristocrats, assassins, and mystics. His second novel is, if anything, even more audacious. Inspired by a true incident, it follows the remarkable experiences of an expedition sent to Africa in 1515 to capture a rhinoceros and transport it to Rome. The expedition was mounted by the Portuguese, struggling to hold on to their far-flung trading empire. The idea was that, by giving the rhinoceros—the most outlandish of creatures, the most unexpected of gifts—to the jaded Pope, he might be sufficiently bemused to side with the Portuguese in their desperate contest with Spain. Norfolk has built an exotic, grim narrative around this obscure (and futile) effort. At the heart of the action is Silvestro, a mercenary, a mystic, and a man with an astonishing talent for surviving, recruited for the expedition because he's an outsider and expendable. While the long voyage out and back is the story's centerpoint, it's only one part of Norfolk's considerable canvas, which also includes a peculiar, isolated order of monks, the plots and counterplots of two intemperate empires, and a wonderful portrait of a decrepit but nonetheless vivid Rome, filled with pilgrims, merchants, various ruthless groups contending for power within the Church, resourceful prostitutes, and equally inventive thieves. The great scale of the book eventually becomes daunting: One adventure spirals into another, escapes follow betrayals, revelation piles on revelation.

But if the increasingly dark narrative seems finally too overstuffed with incident and too long, this is nonetheless one of the most original, energetic, and ambitious novels of recent years. It marks the emergence of a major writer.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802139887
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/10/2003
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Pages: 592
  • Sales rank: 1,392,790
  • Product dimensions: 5.56 (w) x 8.24 (h) x 1.21 (d)

Meet the Author

Lawrence Norfolk was born in 1963. His first novel, Lempriere's Dictionary, was critically acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic and has been translated into twenty-two languages. He lives in London.
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