Monday, December 3, 2012

Bellarion by Rafael Sabatini

Rafael Sabatini is one of the great swashbuckler authors, and I read quite a number of his books as light reading during university. I began with his most well-known works--Captain Blood, Scaramouche, The Sea-Hawk--and found them loads of fun. Unfortunately, some of the more recent reading I've done in Sabatini's works has been a let-down: badly plotted, with uninspiring themes, weak characters, and lazily-drawn settings, all of which detracts from the fun melodrama.

And so it was a pleasant surprise to read Bellarion, one of Sabatini's best.

Bellarion, sometimes called The Fortunate, starts out as a young novice from an Italian monastery who is sent to study in Pavia, the great city of learning near Milan. Then in Casale, the capital of Montferrat, an unexpected adventure sends Bellarion fleeing for his life right into a garden where he finds the Princess Valeria, who, plotting against her evil usurper of an uncle, is in danger of going in over her head. Bellarion, somewhat to his own surprise, immediately puts all his learning, trickery, and boundless cheek at her service, and in the adventures that follow, as he goes on to Milan, is adopted by its governor, and rises quickly to become one of the most cunning and powerful mercenary captains in Italy, the secret he keeps from everyone else is the fact that he is still in Valeria's service.

This was an excellent adventure story. Some failings included Sabatini's secular humanist worldview, which acts condescendingly towards faith and the Church, and his superstitious belief in Fortune--a theme running through all Sabatini's books and in evidence here.

While Bellarion is a sympathetic character and a good deal more honest than many of the other characters, his modus operandi is basically trickery. He speaks about this at the end of the book--
It is not what a man does or says that counts; but what a man intends. I have embraced as a part of my guiding philosophy that teaching of Plato's which discriminates between the lie on the lips and the lie in the heart.
While one can have no sympathy for this philosophy, it was very interesting to hear it explained, especially in the setting of Renaissance Italy. Plato was quite an influence on medieval thinking. St Augustine saw him as the one pagan philosopher closest to Christianity, and therefore chose him as the representative pagan philosopher to refute. It seems that as history went on, Augustine's refutation was forgotten and his endorsement was remembered, so that Plato was taken a good deal too seriously. I knew that Plato thought governments lying to their people was a great idea, and this "lie of the lips/lie of the heart" sophistry shows how he justified it. I suspect that this philosophy lies under a bit more of history than the fictional history of Bellarion, and now I know about it, I'll be looking for it. But I digress.

Although Bellarion, being bold, is favoured by Fortune, the presence of that capricious lady in this book is not allowed to justify laziness in plotting. I was amazed how good this book was. The characters are more nuanced than usual, and Bellarion himself is an interesting character: cunning and unscrupulous, he excels in military strategems as well as negotiations, but is almost physically a coward.

The plot is also well done. Although it contains no big surprises, it does contain the fun of watching Bellarion outwit the villains, along with many military maneuvers, conspiracies, plottings, treacheries, poisonings, et cetera (this is Renaissance Italy, after all). The setting is vividly drawn, all over the geography, history, and politics of Northern Italy, amidst the feuding of Guelphs and Ghibbelines.

Bellarion had a good deal more substance than the usual Sabatini novel, though it should still be read with a grain of salt. I quite enjoyed it.

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