Michael Alexander Eisner
Anchor Books, 2003, ISBN 0385721412; 336 Pages, Paperback $13.00. [Browse/Purchase]
Review by Stanley Goldstein
Stanley Goldstein is the CEO of Bibliotech, Inc and president of the American Friends of James Joyce. A long-time history buff as well as a Great Books enthusiast, Goldstein would like to recommend this work of historical fiction.
The horrors and glories of the Crusades come to life in Michael Alexander Eisner's remarkable first novel, The Crusader. Suspenseful until the very end, Eisner skillfully blends the realities of battle and death with the magic of ultimate faith.
The story concerns itself with Francisco de Montcada, the wealthy heir of Barcelona landowners, who volunteers for a Crusade in order to redeem the soul of his dead brother. He survives both internecine treachery and combat with the infidels, only to return so mentally scarred that he requires the care of a monk expert in exorcising the devil from devout Christians.
Eisners depiction of monastic life is evocative of Umberto Ecos The Name of the Rose, but his portrayal of boundless faith reverberating with a sense of mystery reminiscent of García Márquez is quite different than Ecos modern irony. In rendering the heat of battle, he carries into the realm of fiction the tradition of John Keegan, who raised the bar on describing the face of war for soldiers in combat. Eisner draws his reader into the inferno to the point of fright. Not since James Michener's The Source has the storming of a castle during a siege been so beautifully written, with all of the chaos and noise of battle brought to vivid life. But most of all the fear; fear of confronting the enemy face to face with the knowledge that, in every case, only one man survives.
But the battle scenes take second place to Eisners portrayal of Franciscos imprisonment in Aleppo, where an entire prison society is built up in the most unspeakable and barbarous conditions. A caste system, barter, legal remedies and ethnic loyalties all arrange themselves in the dungeon despite the remoteness of rescue and the near certainty of death.
Despite Eisner's respect for the mysteries of faith, the Church itself takes a beating in this book. The ambition of the monks, the moral corruption of the Church leaders, and the irrationality of the Crusade itself are spelled out with clarity. And yet Eisner also presents the glory of the taking of the cross in equally compelling terms:
In the Year of Our Lord 1099, he said, a ragged army of one thousand five hundred starving knights laid siege to a city populated by more than one hundred thousand people. The Egyptian governor reinforced the local garrison with a special contingent of handpicked Arab and Sudanese soldiers. The city was Jerusalem; the army Christs own. Our brothers, now in paradise, were victorious. In one month, they breached the walls and conquered Jerusalem.
This well-researched novel brings back a page of history with almost tangible reality. We should expect more fulfilling work from this promising writer.
15 August 2003