The Brotherhood of Book Hunters – Raphaël Jerusalmy

Raphael Jerusalmy’s The Brotherhood of Book Hunters is an unexpectedly lively romp through an unlikely period of history, the dawn of the printing press. It takes advantage of the fact that its protagonist, Francois Villon, a late middle-ages French poet and ne’er-do-well, disappears from history following his banishment in 1463. Such a character, both an intellectual and a rogue, with a period of his life unaccounted for, makes for as fun and as intriguing a basis for a historical novel as one could hope for. The sharp contrasts between the criminal and book-loving sides of his persona, revealed beautifully in the novel’s first scene when Francois is visited in his prison cell by the Bishop of Paris, would almost be too good to be, if they were not in fact, true.

The plot is vivid and exciting. The characters gallivant around Europe and the Middle East, meet an array of amusing characters who are never quite what they appear, play a hand in major world events (they even inspire expeditions to the New World) and handle a surprisingly exciting range of rare manuscripts. The problem is that the pace often feels too brisk – Jerusalmy could have spent more time exploring the rich settings (Paris, Genoa, Acre etc.) and significant events which are often rushed through in only a single scene, or even quickly and matter-of-factly reported in another scene. In addition, the scenes themselves are incredibly short, only a page or two each for the most part. The adventure is certainly a rip-roaring one – no sooner had I settled into a scene than I was ripped into a new one. This gave the novel a strangely insubstantial feel which prevented a sense of engagement with events.

Similarly, Jerusalmy could take a more leisurely approach to revealing his characters, many of whom are genuinely entertaining. Francois and Colin (think Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen) are lovable rogues. Francois in particular, at turns a rough vagabond and an educated book lover, grabbed my attention. However, even these central characters have much of their character quickly explained to the reader rather than shown through their words and actions. If these characters had been shown and not told, they would have been truly memorable.

This links also to a flaw in the writing in general. There is a great deal of redundancy in the text (particularly a great many unnecessary adverbs) which explain the significance of what is occurring, when this could be deduced by the reader anyway. This makes the writing itself feel inelegant and uninspiring. Paradoxically, Jerusalmy both spends too many and too few words on his progression through the events of the plot.

Perhaps we should assume that the novel reflects the Booker Hunters’ own quest, to make books “easier to handle, lighter, less expensive. And much less serious.” One of the most interesting themes of the book is how the easily accessible books which we take for granted were born out of the handwritten tomes of scholars which were all the world had before the invention of the printing press. The novel takes big themes, the intellectual battle between religion and reason, the conflict between religion, the preservation of ancient literature, and deals with them a light way. But ultimately I felt this was taken too far, to the extent that the events and characters fly past too fast to be engaging.