The Relic Master
By Christopher Buckley
Simon & Schuster
378 pages, $26.95
By Michael D. Langan
“The Relic Master” seems destined to satisfy a limited audience of historical novel fanatics, and then quickly be remaindered.
Christopher Buckley, son of William F. Buckley Jr., says he’s run out of satire in present-day Washington, D. C. This is a big mistake.
Washington is at its peak-season for lampooning political nut cakes. Buckley is the author of “Thank You for Smoking” and 15 other sometimes-comic, meant-to-make-a-more-serious-point books.
His editor says that during “the 2016 election cycle, he (Buckley) concluded that American politics were sufficiently self-satirizing and decided to venture backward in time to a more innocent, less cynical era and place” – the 16th century Holy Roman Empire.
Buckley is offering up this premise as a jocose, improbable lie for a new book’s beginning. The 16th century was a time replete with the misadventures and sinfulness of men and women, no different from our own. But ridiculing the selling indulgences and a fake burial cloth of Christ could be tiresome and trite at this distance.
Selling relics and indulgences, remember, was a moral crisis in the Church at the time. It triggered Martin Luther’s nailing his 95 theses to the cathedral door. Of course the history of this topic is more complicated than bald exposition of the apparent “facts.”
The relic trade hasn’t elicited many laughs lately. Some Christians may be bothered by Buckley’s taking a swing at such an old piñata, but even in those quarters, as far as I can tell, the retelling elicits a snore. “Buzz, buzz,” Hamlet’s reply to Polonius’ stale news, is an apt response to this sonorous plot.
In 1517, the editor’s precis for the novel explains, “Dismas, a former Swiss mercenary and monk, is now a relic hunter: one who procures “authentic” religious relics for wealth and influential clients.” Two of his richest are also competitors: Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, and “soon-to-be Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz,” who wants Christ’s burial shroud. Once these two own the relics, they sell them to innocent pilgrims who venerate them and pay a price to get a reduced term in Purgatory, a practice approved by the Church of Rome.
You can see why this sinful activity would aggravate Martin Luther, an Augustinian friar who, like most 7-year-olds, but not some Catholic Church leaders at the time, knew this practice was dubious. This much you would likely know if you never read Buckley’s novel.
There is some semi-sacrilegious spoofing in the novel, if you’re open to this kind of fluff.
Marcus, an old warrior with Dismas, is reunited with him. Dismas explains that he’s given up a monk’s life because he couldn’t get used to the hours, and confesses that he’s now an honest man. Marcus asks, “Honest? Hawking pieces of the True Cross? Breast milk of the Virgin? How much did you get for your soul, then?” Marcus inquires. Dismas protests that he’s a truthful man.
And on and on. To spice things up, Buckley introduces the painter Albrecht Durer into the plot to make a burial cloth for Dismas to sell to Cardinal Albrecht. Along the way, the author introduces one of the cardinal points of dispute that continues to divide Christendom by way of an issue that the Durer raises.
“Why do you think people pay me to make their portraits? To cover their walls? It’s fear of being forgotten. Everyone wants immortality … Luther says that penance meted out by priests is bull ...” Durer said. He says we don’t need priests for that. We can deal directly with God.”
By now you’ll know whether you’d like to sit at Buckley’s knee for the rest of this theology lesson.
I have a suggestion for Buckley’s next effort. Why not consider a book on today’s monumental pilfering and selling of ancient, irreplaceable artifacts taking place in the Middle East? Much of it is taking place under the auspices of ISIS and other terrorist organizations. It’s a huge trade that’s destroying part of the world’s art treasures, and it’s not 500 years old.
But there’s nothing funny about it.
Michael D. Langan is a frequent reviewer of books for The Buffalo News.