Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Gentlemen of the Road

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Gentlemen of the Road

A Tale of Adventure

by Michael Chabon

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2007, 208 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2008, 224 pages

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Amy Reading

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The Lost Empire of Khazaria

Khazaria (map) was an empire founded by semi-nomadic Turks in the 7th century. Khazaria was a strong ally of the Byzantine Empire and enemies of the Crimean Goths. By the time of its decline in the 10th century, Khazaria covered much of what is now southern Russia, western Kazakhstan, eastern Ukraine, Azerbaijan, large portions of the Caucasus, and the Crimea. Between 965 and 969, approximately the time period of Gentlemen of the Road, the Khazars were invaded by Russian soldiers and subjected to their rule. A short time later, the Khazars began to disappear as a culturally distinct group.

Two aspects of Khazar culture factor largely in Gentlemen of the Road. The first is their conversion to Judaism in the late 8th or early 9th century. Before then, Khazars practiced Turkish shamanism, but they had always maintained amicable relations with Jews. Khazar royalty and nobility converted to Judaism probably as a result of the influence both of Jewish immigrants escaping persecution in the Byzantine Empire and the Radhanites, merchant Jews who regularly traded in Khazar territory. Scholars speculate that the rest of the population also converted to Judaism in a bid for political neutrality, because Khazaria was wedged between Muslims to the east and Christians to the west.

Second, Khazaria was governed by a unique dual kingship. Power was, at least theoretically, shared between the khagan, or the spiritual leader, and the bek, or the military and political leader. In reality, the khagan probably had little power, living as he did in heavily guarded isolation in a castle on an island in the middle of the Volga River. In Chabon's account, "a kagan new-crowned was forced to his knees and informed, with his neck in the loop of a silken garrote, of the precise day and hour on which he would be returned to the spot and dispatched, by a slipknot, to the afterlife of kings." Though the bek served at the khagan's behest, his was the more enviable position, and it is the bekship that is disputed in Gentlemen of the Road.


Shantranj

As the novel opens, Amram is bent over an ivory shatranj board laid out with pieces of ebony and horn. Not only does the game recur at several crucial moments of the novel's plot, but the plot itself might be mapped onto a shatranj board. Shatranj was an ancient precursor to modern chess. Unlike chess but like shatranj, Gentlemen of the Road contains no queens, just two claimants to the king's throne. Instead of queens, shatranj provides its kings with fers or counselors, who move one square on the diagonal at a time. Amram and Zelikman might be seen as fers who are constitutionally incapable of a straightforward move. The faras, or horse, moves like a modern-day bishop; and the pill or elephant moves like a knight. In Gentlemen of the Road, horses and elephants have so much agency and are so integral to the plot that they might be seen as characters in their own right. But any further speculation in this vein would risk giving away one of the novel's many plot turns, and so we leave the rest of the mapping to you!

This article was originally published in November 2007, and has been updated for the September 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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