n 1944, Kathleen Windsor, inspired by her husband’s work as a history professor, published her first novel, Forever Amber, the sprawling saga of Amber, a poor peasant girl who claws her way to the top with nothing more than a pair of gorgeous amber colored eyes and an antipathy toward celibacy. It was roundly condemned by the Catholic Church, banned in 14 states, and the film the book inspired was condemned by the Hays Office. All this smiting managed to accomplish was to ensure that my teenage mother and all her fellow filthy-minded high school friends couldn’t wait to get their hands on a copy.
This year, Traci L. Slatton, inspired by her husband’s interest in Renaissance Florence, published her first novel, Immortal, the sprawling saga of Luca, a poor street urchin who claws his way to the top with nothing more than a head full of gorgeous reddish-blond hair and the ability to live forever. Immortal is full of forced prostitution, looting, pillaging, and sodomy. Plus,it makes the Catholic Church looks like it’s packed with a pile of crooked assholes, and so far the book hasn’t raised a single eyebrow. Damn these modern times!
I suppose it doesn’t hurt that Forever Amber is the bodice-ripper to end all bodice-rippers. Immortal is much more intellectual and restrained, making it ultimately a much better book, or at least one you don’t have to tape a brown paper bag book cover over the original cover so nobody can tell what you’re reading.
The book spans nearly two centuries, from 1324 to the end of the 15th century, covering the long and lonely life of Luca Bastardo, who seemingly originated on the streets of Florence, unable to remember his life before the age of nine. Sold into slavery by his best friend, Luca finds himself trapped for twenty years and at the mercy of brothel owner Bernardo Silvano, a sadist sociopath who almost whimsically tortures kills the numerous children held there for any number of infractions. Luca’s soul is kept intact by his love of the great artwork that was happening in Florence at the time, and pushes away the horrors of his life by focusing on his beloved paintings. At last, Luca escapes, and by doing so makes an enemy of the Silvano clan, who pursue him relentlessly for generations to exact their revenge.
As the world ages around him, Luca begins to search for his origins, to see if his parents are ageless like he is. He begins to hear scraps of tales of a race protected by the mystical Cathars, a sect of Christianity persecuted by the Catholic Church for heresy. His search is difficult and frustrating, because the people who have information – Bernardo Silvano, who has a mysterious paper regarding Luca’s origins that he taunts the boy with but will not let him see, and a man known only as the Wanderer, who is friends with the Jewish family that takes in Luca after his escape from the brothel. The Wanderer and his temperamental donkey seem similarly ageless, but both the Wanderer and his friend, Geber the Alchemist, seem more intent on answering his questions with inscrutable questions of their own.
After seeing a vision in the philosopher’s stone given to him by Geber and the Wanderer, Luca begins a new quest – to find love, even though he is told by the vision that finding his true love will also hasten his death.
Immortal, at its heart, has an almost Zen-like flavor. Luca spends the better part of his long life seeking enlightenment, and grows frustrated by his inability to control his gifts, both as a physico, a profession taught to him by his father-figure Moshe Sforno, the kind Jewish doctor who takes him in, and as an alchemist, where the ability to turn lead into gold eludes him. Isolated and lonely, Luca’s heart is as fragmented as his religious beliefs – his view of a good God who works through his protégé Leonardo da Vinci to create masterful works of art, and an evil God who laughs at his misfortune. Rather than find the path to enlightenment through a series of successive reincarnations, Luca has just this one long life to figure out the key to happiness.
Slatton takes this period of history that is seen now mostly in dusty history books, raises it to its feet, and fleshes it out to create one man’s compelling life, peppering ancient social mores and belief systems with just a bit of modern language (one character refers to another as a “good drinking buddy,”) and adding just enough magic to make the whole thing seem real.
I really love a good book of historical fiction, and Immortal was a very pleasurable book to read, one that I looked forward to picking up. After slogging through science books which were too hard, and humorous compilations of essays revolving around the dating scene, which were too soft, it was nice to find a book that was just right.
by Traci L. Slatton
February, 2008 by Delta
513 pp, Paperback
Sunday, March 16, 2008