In her historical novel, Alix Christie transports us to 15th century Germany. It is a place divided by class and religious strife. To make matters worse, the Ottoman threat looms in the horizon.
In Mainz, a free city by the Rhine, the rigid medieval guilds wage an economic war against Archbishop Dietrich. The city suffers and its destiny is uncertain. Hardly could a casual observer guess that in one of its workshops, the city was about to give birth to the modern world.
Gutenberg’s Apprentice follows the tale of Peter Schoeffer, a copyist in Paris that is called back to his hometown by his adoptive father. There, on his father’s orders he becomes part of an unthinkable enterprise: the reproduction of identical books. This way, the protagonist becomes an apprentice to Johannes Geinsflesch (John Goose Flesh), better known as Gutenberg.
The novel explores the crucial moment in which, guided by a stubborn and unrelenting Gutenberg, the characters develop the necessary techniques to produce printed books. Alix Christie crafts a plot where the reader gains some perspective, on how an invention we take for granted, came close to never existing. As such, the author treats us with a brilliant historical viewpoint that eloquently reflects our own, current reality.
One of the novel’s achievements is to humanize Gutenberg himself, a name so shrouded in mystery and veneration, that it is oftentimes difficult to imagine as “flesh and bone”. There is a vivid description that brings to the fore the filth of his teeth and the stink of his mouth, giving the character and additional dimension. Likewise, time leaps in the novel add another perspective. Peter Schoeffer, now an old man, tells the story of his youth, and offers a mature opinion of his master. Multiplication of time, multiplication of books, multiplication of perspectives.
The book is structured in such a way that it mirrors the book that the characters are trying to multiply — The Latin Bible. Gutenberg’s Apprentice has five narrative acts titled after biblical books. For example, the first ten chapters make Genesis and they actually have creation and discovery as a theme, but also loss and expulsion from paradise. This internal structure is not a perfect mirror of the Pentateuch. However, it shows that the author is capable of establishing a dialogue between her narrative and all the different components of the story, historical and fictional.
In relation to the above, I must confess that what I enjoyed the most about the novel was its gestalt-play. Like the medieval city sought to be an image of the heavenly city, thus the book seeks to reflect the book the characters are trying to multiply: the emphasis is on technique and multiplication. Alix Christie has first-hand experience with printing and is familiar with medieval techniques and this comes through in her words. Her descriptions surround the reader with the material qualities of printing and add to the immersion, a welcome feat in a historical novel well written as it is.
The novel’s weakest point, is that it lacks a clear antagonist, and that the reader already knows the ending, unless somehow an alien got hold of the book. For that reason, Gutenberg’s Apprentice losses some of its strength towards the end. The mystery and the immersion that she achieved during the first two thirds of the book suffers for that reason.
Julia Osuna’s Spanish translation is respectful of the original tone, and is careful enough to preserve the technical vocabulary. The voice of the characters is congruent throughout the novel. Her translation allows the reader to be immersed in the 15th century without being old fashioned or archaizing.
Gutenberg’s Apprentice is an easy to read historical novel, that nevertheless possesses great historical subtlety and can be explored at many levels. It is a book relevant to our days, and one I wholeheartedly enjoyed.
(IMAGE: The Heuristic Bibliometer places the novel three fourths of the way between 50 Shades of Grey and Anna Karenina.)