At times a kind of 16th century Ocean’s Eleven mixed with poignant ruminations upon the powerlessness of the individual in the face of overwhelming church authority, Buckley’s novel swings unexpectedly and brilliantly between lighthearted comedy, brutal violence, and heartfelt romance in ways perhaps only available to the comic novel form.
The Relic Master
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.
Martin Luther once said “I’m fed up with the world, and it is fed up with me. I’m quite content with that. The world thinks that if it is only rid of me everything will be fine, and it will accomplish this. After all, it’s as I’ve often said: I’m like a ripe stool and the world’s like a gigantic anus, and so we’re about to let go of each other.” (Table Talk, #5537).
Not exactly the image of Martin Luther that was pitched to us in history class, nor perhaps, what we would currently imagine of the man who pounded the 95 theses into the church door (there’s a pun in there somewhere). Yet, this is one of the consequences of historical distance, in terms of both chronology and hero worship. 2017 will be 500 years exactly from the date Luther broke out his hammer, and it is difficult to keep in mind how brutal, violent, and by modern standards, even vulgar, much of the period in which the Reformation occurred really was.
This is compounded by the fact that for the average American, the Protestant Reformation is little more than another definition to be memorized for an exam, then forgotten as quickly as possible. It is a distant piece of ancient history, an incunabulum covered in dust and mold, somewhere on the back of history’s shelf, its relevance and importance long forgotten amidst the stacks of modern Christianity. Especially in a world where the differences between transubstantiation and a symbolic gesture no longer hold the deadly consequences of the 16th century, it can be difficult for the average person to remember the kind of church culture Martin Luther rebelled against—even moreso to imagine the experiences of a citizen in the midst of that political and social upheaval.
It is in this way that Christopher Buckley’s 2015 novel The Relic Master truly shines. Buckley paints a picture of 16th century Europe that is rife with disease, venality, corruption, and ruthlessness of the highest order, and he does it in a way that highlights not the debates of theology at the high church tabernacle, but rather in the daily experiences of the common people. Soldiers and painters discuss the excesses of the Pope Leo X and the brisk trade of indulgences according to a Bible they wish they could read, all in ways that evoke the actual cultural milieu of the period; these ideas swirl in the novel while characters also murder one another, get staggeringly drunk in nearby taverns, and attempt to steal from the Church, even though they believe these acts will send them to hell.
This is not to say that The Relic Master is a Christian book. Far from it, in fact. My point is that Buckley does a great job of capturing the actual flavor of this period in ways that seem particularly available to the comic novel. He mixes the bawdiness of Renaissance Europe with the intellectual trade that often wallowed in the mud along with the people in ways that are rarely accomplished, or even attempted, by other writers. For this reason alone, The Relic Master is worth a read, if nothing else.
Yet, there is much more to this novel than an accurate representation of 16th century Europe. It follows the story of Dismas, a former Reisläufer and monk who has become a dealer in Holy Relics for two of the most powerful men in Europe: Frederic the Wise, ruler of Saxony, and Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz. Frederic desires true relics to heal and gratify the people, while Albrecht wants them only for their ability to generate money as both healing objects and generators of papal indulgences. When Frederic and his friend, the great German painter Albrecht Dürer, concoct a plan to sell the Archbishop a fake relic so that loyal and honest Dismas can retire back to the Swiss Alps, the plot takes a turn that leaves both men changed forever.
At times a kind of 16th century Ocean’s Eleven mixed with poignant ruminations upon the powerlessness of the individual in the face of overwhelming church authority, Buckley’s novel swings unexpectedly and brilliantly between lighthearted comedy, extreme violence, and heartfelt romance in ways perhaps only available to the comic novel form; and yet, its placement at such an important historical juncture, and in relation to a practice a modern audience would deem silly or primitive—relic collecting—keeps it fresh and engaging to the last page.
The Relic Master is peopled with historical characters who make the story come to life in ways that an entirely fictional cast could not have achieved. As mentioned above, some of the major players in the Reformation show up, including Martin Luther, Frederic (who protected Luther from the Inquisition), Archbishop Albrecht, and Pope Leo X. Other historical figures and objects also appear, such as Paracelsus, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Charles III (Charles the Good), and the Shroud of Turin, just to name a few. And Buckley doesn’t merely bring these characters into the story as historical trimming—no, he understands how they fit into that period’s tableau of political and social upheaval, and each of their roles says something about Dismas’s journey, making it not merely a rollicking adventure but the story of Europe itself.
Buckley is also a master of symbolism, not merely for the moment in which it appears, but in ways that have broader meaning long after you have finished reading. I won’t spoil them here, but I will mention one as an example. A torture technique known as roughly The Little Puppet is introduced, which places hooks through the victims’ hands, feet, and ears, then suspends these victims in the air, moving them around like puppets until death. Such a treatment, should the victims survive, would leave them marred and mutilated for the rest of their lives. This torture, however, is also representative of many of the characters’ predicaments even to the novel’s end: suspended and manipulated by the powers of church and state beyond all hope, whether that power is benevolent or evil in nature. Let us also not forget that hooks through hands and feet leave marks of the stigmata as well, a significance I don’t think I need to explain for this kind of novel.
While Buckley’s work here deserves all of the above praise, it also suffers from some of the same faults as all comic novels. In fact, I hesitate to even call these “faults,” since I am such a fan of comic novels in general, and I love to see when they are executed so effectively. Still, if you either don’t much care for comic novels or you aren’t experienced with the form, there are a few issues to keep in mind when you pick up this book (and I encourage when, rather than if). Characterization in these kinds of novels—and The Relic Master is no exception—will often be light. Don’t expect pages of introspection or long, drawn out ruminations upon the inner nature of particular characters. Individuals act, rather than think, in this novel, and while that keeps the plot humming along at a nice pace, it sometimes leaves you wishing for more, especially concerning important relationships in the novel’s latter sections. Buckley’s writing is also heavy on dialogue, instead of description. You’ll know where you are; in fact, he gets descriptions of scenery and location across in as few words as possible, but readers are left to fill in the gaps more often than I would like. It is clear that Buckley did such heavy research into the politics and personages of the period that I wish his prose only did a better job of conveying the physical presence of the novel’s locales.
Still, The Relic Master is an excellent comic novel, and if you’re looking for a fun read that has religious and political bite, this is a book for you. While the novel as a whole has a few problems, these issues pale in comparison to its tightly plotted story, its heartfelt, but flawed, characters, and Buckley’s sheer storytelling prowess.