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LAWRENCE NORFOLK - THE POPE’S RHINOCERUS. 1996 Sinclair Stevenson ISBN: 0805054758 Big, sprawling, epic, heavily over-written but highly entertaining story set in the Catholic Europe of Pope Leo X. on the brink of the Reformation and in Africa. A quiet group of hermetic monks find that half of the cliff-top monastery has collapsed into the sea. They embark on a pilgrimage to Rome to beg the Pope for help in preserving the remainder of the doomed building. They find Rome is not the Holy city of their dreams, but a corrupt, decadent Sodom & Gomorrah, full of prostitutes, pirates and criminals. The monks are quickly split up as they make several enemies in their efforts to gain an audience with the Pope. Some, chased by their enemies, spend a terrifyingly well-described night in the heart of a quaking bog. They have the sense to stay still while nightfall means that they cannot find the safe paths through. They hear all night the screams of their sinking pursuers who have dared to keep moving. The story fragments and rolls around at tangents and many minor characters get elaborate sub-plots. This reaches iris peak with the story of the Vatican Cat. Brought in to stem the growing and highly symbolic rat problem in the Mother Church, the cat proves to be both lazy and Machiavellian. It enters into a deal with the rats. They must give him their dead and feeble rats, so that he can be praised for catching rats. If they don’t, he warns, the Cardinals will bring in a more efficient rat catching cat, and the rats will get slaughtered. . The rats agree to the arrangement. In another thread, the Pope arranges a re-enactment of a crusade battle that manages to be more costly and violent than the actual event. Pope Leo X is a lover of spectacle and curiosities. The title of the book refers to one such spectacle. The Pope wants a Rhino for his zoo. He organizes an expedition to Africa with some of the surviving monks obliged to sail with it. After complex adventures in Africa, a Rhino is captured. On the return journey, the ship is sunk in a storm. Everyone on board dies. The dead rhino and the body of one monk are found washed up on the Italian beaches. This is an alleged fact on which Norfolk bases the whole story. A Rhino and an unknown man were found dead on the beach. As Pope Leo wants a Rhino in his parade, the Rhino carcass is stuffed with yeast, and prepared for presentation to Rome. As it is marched through the streets in triumph, it begins to rain, and get warm. The yeast rises, and the Rhino bloats out into a horrid parody of itself before exploding over everyone watching… It is one of many unforgettable images and reflections in the story, though there are many dull heavy going passages between them, but stick with it, for this one is a story that will never let you go. When it is good, it is awesome. http://www.contemporarywriters.com/authors/?p=auth81

 

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