THE KING AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
Arthur Phillips, Random House, 2020
Guest post by writer extraordinaire, Terence Hawkins
Arthur Phillips is an exceptionally sly writer. His celebrated debut novel, Prague, is set in Budapest. The joke is that all its characters, late-eighties expats, long to get out of Hungary and to the Czech capital, where the post-Soviet good times roll.
Though the same whimsy colors aspects of his latest book, The King at the Edge of the World, its tone and subject are darker. It opens in 1591. A Turkish doctor, the sweet-tempered and essentially innocent Mahmoud Ezzedine, has been tricked into joining an Ottoman embassy to London by a court functionary with designs on his wife. After he saves an English courtier from a seizure in Elizabeth’s presence, he is given to the Queen as a present when the embassy departs, leaving him the only Muslim in Britain. Miserable years at court are followed by even deeper agony in the wilds of Cumberland, where he has been assigned as physician-in-residence to the epileptic noble. ButEa things get shockingly worse. In 1601 he is recalled from exile by Sir Robert Cecil’s espionage service. It tasks him with resolving the question critical to the inheritance of the childless and dying Elizabeth’s throne: Is James VI of Scotland a true Protestant or a closet Catholic? If the latter, he cannot be permitted to succeed her.
Thus poor Mahmoud finds himself in Edinburgh, the only place on Earth more dismal for him than Northern England. Eager to finish his mission and cash in the return to Constantinople Cecil has dangled, he hits on a stratagem: only on his deathbed will a man tell the truth about his soul. How he gets James to his, and plucks him back, would be telling too much. Let’s just say that the Scots King’s regrettable hygiene is involved. But the resolution is far more clever than Prague’s switcheroo.
On the way to it, Phillips convincingly portrays England’s true place in the world of 1600: pretty much nowhere. Mahmoud longs for the warmth and vibrancy of Constantinople, its colors brighter and smells sweeter than the “diseased air and gruesome streets” of Elizabethan London. He finds the courtiers effeminate and asks whether they are eunuchs. Most powerfully conveyed is a sense of the island’s insignificance; the Ottomans are the powerhouse of the Mediterranean, who would less than a hundred years later reach Vienna, while England was the last stop before a boundless freezing ocean. There are, of course, bright spots—Mahmoud’s friendship with Tudor magus John Dee, for example—but by and large the image is of Britain as a backward place.
The plot is tight and the prose lush without excesses. Read this for a view of Elizabeth’s England through very different eyes.