Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Emperor's Babe

I felt intimidated at the start of Bernardine Evaristo’s 250-page novel-in-verse, The Emperor’s Babe, but I needn’t have worried. She successfully alternates bursts of lyricism with a fast-paced narrative, kicked along by couplets, that makes the chapters fly by.

The poem is set in 3rd century Roman-occupied London and concerns Zuleika, a Sudanese immigrant who is now a Roman citizen and trophy wife of Felix, a older, rich and unfaithful Roman businessman. Her affair with the Roman Emperor, who spots her at a theatre production, is the defining event of the book and changes Zuleika’s life.

Evaristo has done her research and the book abounds with authentic, juicy details of Roman life. I particularly enjoyed the menus – stuffed thrush and lentils, dormice cooked in honey and poppy seed, fried jellyfish, sautéed peacock brains, lark’s tongue in Gaul garlic spiced with perfumed peacock feathers and peppered rose petals.

But this is no ordinary period drama. A bawdy humour typical of London’s contemporary East End skids through the book. Zuleika and her friends are sassy girls-about-town with very modern aspirations. One of the poem’s main achievements is to successfully blend the contemporary and historical so that neither seems an anachronism

Some passages are lyrically tender. Zuleika describes Felix during the early stages of their marriage, a poignant description of a man who can’t express himself emotionally:

He has grown more fond of me than expected.
He needs me to love him, methinks.

He wants to reach out to me,
but he can’t reveal himself –

the son of a patrician is not taught how.
Sometimes he curls his arms around me

at night as if I am the most precious
thing in the world, as if I am his soul

and without me he would be empty.
You make life real, he’d often said.

Instead of a list of goals achieved.
That was as far as he could take it.

Evaristo times passages to end with a sting in their tail to perfection and, by them, also manages to keep her characters from becoming caricatures – even Felix, an unfaithful slob who attempts to imprison his young bride in his house when he is away, still deserves a degree of pity.

Zuleika, married off to Felix at the age of 11, loses her innocence and goes through periods of depression, trapped in her loveless marriage and with no good experience of sex of the sort her friends talk about. After she meets the Emperor, her tone changes and her poetry (she has a poetry tutor) takes on a new dimension:

I like you two ways
either take off your crown of laurels
drop your purple robes
to the floor
and come to me naked
as a man

or dress up.

That's probably as good as Zuleika's poetry gets, mind you. She never becomes as good as she'd like to be, and her "poetry slam" evening, which turns into an orgy, is one of the funniest sections in the book.

One of my favourite passages shows off the poem’s black humour to great effect. Zuleika is at the amphitheatre and watches as 300 human beings are marched in before they face the fighting animals and near-certain death. This ancient spectacle is handled with contemporary flair, pathos, and a tone that shoots from energetic lyric to tabloid vernacular and back again:

I had expected the famous Über-hunks

with pumped-up biceps and sex-packs,
the preening supertarts who were pursued

by every promiscuous debutante
who fancied a bit of wotless rough,

who were Guests of Honour at feasts,
intimate soirées and in-crowd orgy parties,

who were millionaires if free, and freed if not,
who lived in vulgares villae overstuffed

with Greek reproduction statues
and murals of themselves in heroic poses,

their penes super-enlarged and upstanding,
who were regulars in the news tablet Ave!

and were thus idolized by the lower classes,
analysed by the chattering classes

and satirized by the smug classes
in comic sketches at the theatre

where they appeared as air-heads
wot ‘adn’t mastered the lingua Latin proper,

wot didn’t know their Horace
from their hors d’oeuvres, and who’d turn up

at the premier of a bowel movement
with their simpering, pretty-babe wives

wot came from the ‘amlets of Essex.
But it was not to be.

Few of this merry bunch had diplomas
in Gladiator Moves from the Academia.

Most were from the ranks of old slaves, convicts,
Christians, prisoners of war and the poor

making a bid for solvency and stardom.

I can understand why one review said that this poem was “like an episode of Sex in the City written by Ovid”.

The book puts ideas of dominion and Empire under the microscope as well as personal themes of ambition, desire, and love. It’s also a most entertaining read, with generous measures of comedy and tragedy, and if you feel intimidated at the thought of 250 pages of poetry, this poem will surprise you by how (increasingly) hard it becomes to put down.


Jee Leong said...

I heard Evaristo read her poetry and speak on a panel when she attended the Singapore Literary Festival a few years ago. "The Emperor's Babe" is a terrific read, and almost turned me to writing verse novel. I was saved by my own ineptitude for planning a long narrative arc. The narrative and descriptive scenes were the best parts; the lyrics were weaker, I think.

Jee Leong

Richard Epstein said...

"dormice cooked in honey and poppy seed, fried jellyfish, sautéed peacock brains"

Dear Rob,

May I just have a pizza, please?


Rob said...

Jee - I rememeber you said you'd read it. I think you're right that the narrative and descriptive parts are the strongest. She has a new book out, Soul Tourists, that also sounds good - it's part prose, part blank verse, part haiku series etc.

Richard - one dormouse pizza coming up.

Richard Epstein said...

One always wonders, reading these descriptions of Lucullan feasts, whether the foods acually tasted good or whether that was beside the point--the point, obviously, being to show that you could afford to serve the dishes, irrespective of taste. I know one has to make certain allowances for autres temps, autres moeurs, but, really, I think the Italians developed pepperoni to get rid of the taste of dormice.

Unknown said...

I read this about two years ago -got about 3/4 of the way through but never finished it. It has some great stuff eaerly on, an dlots of laughs, but I dunno, it got boring for me about 3/4 of the way through - it just seemed like the same stuff going on and on and also started to become predictable. Well, that's just me.

Rob said...

Yes, Richard, I wonder what dormice taste like. Perhaps they aren't so bad. A food that to us is fine, like prawns for example, would be considered disgusting in some societies.
However, if dormice forced Italy to invent pepperoni, then we have a lot to thank them for.

Cookie - you mean you never found out what happened to Zuleika in the end?
I must admit, I never got bored, but I suspect that kind of thing all depends on personal taste.