Although I constantly sense that I am missing the point of this unusual novel, it is impossible to resist the author’s seductive use of language as a young calligrapher silently wends his way through the streets of a Paris lined with false prophets of the Dark Ages who rage against the popular heresies of the Enlightenment.
An orphan, Dalessius works for a time at his uncle’s business, Night Mail, transporting the dead - usually soldiers - in coffins to families all over the country. In times of war, loved ones are anxiously awaited, but as months pass, the silent coffins often arrive to empty houses. The coffins have ingenious little windows for viewing the bodies inside, thus preventing horrible mistakes. It is through one of these contraptions that Dalessius peers at the stunningly beautiful face of Clarissa Von Knepper, with whom he falls hopelessly in love. Clarissa’s only skill is her ability to remain immobile for long periods of time, hence her safe passage through vigilant sentries to a waiting father.
In the employ of the writer and philosopher Voltaire, Dalessius travels from a remote village to Paris on his master’s behalf, Clarissa never far from his thoughts. With only his calligraphic talent as a buffer against a world of secrecy and conflicting religious dogma, Dalessius is drawn to the chambers of Voltaire’s enemies, his mission obscure but vital. From the dimly lit caves where calligraphers toil diligently on priceless parchment to the secret meetings of powerful men seeking to manipulate the fears of the masses,
de Santis thrills and seduces with images and language both evocative and mysterious.
A sort of gothic nightmare evolves: gloomy castles, disappearing ink, the scratch of quill on parchment, the ambiguity of language, and the plight of a young woman held hostage by her father lest such as Dalessius spirit her away. The sinister and the powerful haunt the darkened rooms where deals are negotiated, while Dalessius enjoys an unexpected acquaintance with an executioner. The executioner ponders the relevance of his craft, recreating the 16th-century Halifax gibbet: a blade set between two pieces of wood that effectively severs the head, severing as well the need for executioner and axe.
From Voltaire’s collection of artifacts to the sharpened quill turned deadly weapon, this small novel is embellished with the detritus of history - ink from the blood of squid, cells filled with curling pages of parchment, even the bizarre practice of transcribing words on the skin of a woman, the message hidden by her garments. A bishop’s words are forged in secret; a beautiful daughter poses for a demanding sculptor, a perfect model; the rattling keys of a prelate preface certain violence; and an executioner discusses the subtleties of his craft.
A journey into the past where the Dark Ages hold sway in a century striving toward intellectual illumination, Voltaire's Calligrapher is a study of the vagaries of human nature, the hubris of power, and the love of a craft where beauty is found in the touch of pen to paper, the tactile a meditation on perfection.