A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom is a story of human history brimming with mythical vibrancy as we are invited to explore the world through a nonlinear lens. The challenge is to see the progress of a man’s life and his experiences from birth to an elderly grandfather over the course of two thousand and sixteen years, plus a seismic jump into the future amongst the stars in the epilogue.
Each chapter is based in a unique time and place, with a nebulous family of different names as the language varies with region. The novel starts in Palestine in 1 AD with obvious connections to the events of the time, including the slaughter of infant boys in the towns that surround Bethlehem, in fear that a King of the Jews was born. Death dispatched by his father, Marinus, a Roman soldier, he returned home that night and stared at his new-born son placing his hand on his head – the main character and narrator of the story.
“When he took it away, a trace of blood was left in its wake, a deadly deposit, and I’ve always wondered whether some residue of his crimes remained indelibly upon my soul, a tattoo invisible to all but the eyes of the gods, a reminder of the massacre of the innocents that was taking place as I filled my lungs with air for the first time.”
The second chapter moves to Turkey in 41 AD with the narrator’s father, now named Marek as a Roman legionnaire, under a mission for Emperor Caligula. Many of the scenes and actions illustrate that some darker facets of human existence are doomed to repeat over and over. A life of violence and predatory sex seems to follow the characters as they advance through eras that include many historical figures and events – such as Julius Caesar, Shakespeare, Christopher Columbus, the Plague and Tsunamis.
The epilogue offers a future that finally breaks the cycle of sedition and egregious behaviour and is a sign of hope – ending the continuous encounters of violence, abuse, greed, fear, sexual dominance, hardship, discrimination, and distrust.
The conundrum John Boyne creates is that we know he has thought deeply about a message or messages woven throughout his novel but also making it personal for each reader to imagine and draw their own perspectives. This is a canvas to not only interpret John Boyne’s artistic genius but to paint our own imagination. The multiple interpretations of the novel hails the layers of clever considerations as a story unfolds with a fascinating leap between each chapter. I cannot imagine too many contemporary authors pulling this off.
The final two chapters are quite different again. The penultimate chapter is based in the US in 2016 when a new president is elected and it may just be the end of us all. I didn’t feel this chapter really worked but I can accept the following epilogue as a means of leaving us with some hope. I would highly recommend reading this book and would rate it 4.9 stars. I would like to thank Double Day Books, Random House UK and NetGalley for providing me with a free ARC in return for an honest review.