Christopher Buckley claims that he stopped writing political satire because “American politics have reached the point of being self-satirized.” The author of Thank You for Smoking and The White House Mess has turned to another continent and a different century for his new novel, but the move to Reformation-era Europe has not dulled his sensibilities, political or otherwise. Buckley hasn’t abandoned political satire at all — he’s just found a different playing field for his favorite sport.
The calamitous 16th century proves a supple mistress for this Washington writer. The Relic Master centers on a former monk and mercenary named Dismas, who lost his wife and children in the plague while he was off pillaging. Now in retirement, he buys and sells the body parts and accessories of saints and other religious figures. We first meet Dismas on his new field of battle: the Basel Relics Fair, where he considers buying “a finger bone of Saint Thomas,” “another foot (whole) of the Magdalene” and a boat once owned by St. Peter (“Odd, wasn’t it — saltwater worm damage, in a freshwater fishing vessel?”)
The people buying, selling and admiring these impossible bits and pieces (how many knuckles did St. Thomas actually have?) sound and behave similarly to their modern descendants on K Street. “More and more, these days, there was an emphasis on size,” Dismas laments. “Really, it was all getting a bit out of hand.”
Like the best lobbyists, our hero knows that it’s possible to serve two masters — as long as you’re diplomatic and have an endgame. For Dismas, that means making enough guilders to finance a return to the Swiss hamlet where he was born. But when an unscrupulous banker steals his nest egg, Dismas decides to play his competing buyers against each other. Two wealthy rulers, Frederick of Saxony and Albrecht of Mainz, will both be tempted by the Shroud of Turin that Dismas has literally cooked up with his friend Nars, a comic version of Albrecht Durer, perhaps Germany’s most celebrated medieval artist.
Unfortunately, Nars is such a narcissist that he can’t resist adding a personal touch to the shroud in the form of another artist’s signet ring. When that plan goes awry, Dismas is taken into custody to endure a terrible punishment known as the marionette, and Nars has to figure out how to get them both off the hook, as it were.
He does so by taking advantage of an odd theological notion called “translation,” in which a holy relic “decides” that it should be moved from one place to another. And so, Dismas and Nars are allowed to take their “true shroud” to Chambery, France, gathering as they travel three German mercenaries with the ridiculously silly names of Cunrat, Nutker and Unks.
As the five men stumble through forests, they find a beautiful young woman named Magda, whose apothecary skills come straight from the famed Paracelsus — leading the sextet to head back to Basel for a visit with that father of modern medicine. (Unks is particularly delighted by Magda’s knowledge of South American yohimbe, which allows him to prolong his hours at local brothels.)
Despite this bawdy comedy, Buckley may be at his sweetest when he writes about the fairer sex. He’s downright sentimental when Dismas tells Magda about his dead wife and when they cuddle in various makeshift quarters while awaiting the next day’s horrors. In other words, as the foolhardy little group in The Relic Master marches toward Chambery and an almost impossible mission, Buckley hikes up his satiric skirt a tad to show a bit of his tender side. Yes, he demonstrates — hilariously — how abusive religious institutions can be, how bad things can get when church and state are intertwined and how cruelly humans can act at their worst. But he also longs for justice and peace. He especially wants rest for the weary, and readers will cheer when that occurs, but they won’t be weary of reading this lively, entertaining and occasionally educational novel.
Bethanne Patrick reviewed this book for The Washington Post.