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Luigi Malerba: Il fuoco Greco [Greek Fire]

This is another unusual novel for Malerba, as it is a historical novel, concerned, as its title tells us, with Greek fire, a weapon used by various peoples but particularly and with great success by the Byzantines. There have been various formulae used for what we call Greek fire. The ones that the Byzantines used was a closely guarded secret and we still do not know exactly what they used. What we do know is that it burned in water and that the Byzantines won many battles using it, projecting it at their enemies through tubes. This novel is set at the end of the tenth century. The main action starts in 962. Theopano is acting as regent. Her husband, Romanos II, actually died in 963 but he is not mentioned at all in the book. (One theory is that Theophano poisoned him though there is no evidence for this.) Their children, the co-emperors, are aged three and five. Theophano is both ruthless and ambitious. Those that do not obey her are ruthlessly punished. She frequently takes young men as lovers and, when she has grown tired of them, she has them killed, so that they cannot spread the secrets of her bedchamber. However, she is not entirely on her own. Joseph Bringas, a eunuch, had been her husband’s chief adviser and remains so. He is as ruthless as Theophano. For example, he had a skin disease. The doctor who treated him saw his body so, once he was cured, the doctor was killed. Theophano needs him but also fears his power, as does everyone else at court.

The Byzantines are doing well with Greek fire. The army is led by Nikephoros Phokas. He is a great hero, as he continually defeats the enemies he faces. He is now returning to Constantinople but, technically, may not enter the city with his army, unless invited to do so by the Regent. At Bringas’ suggestion, she is not inviting him to do so, fearing that he might try and seize power. However, he arrives with his army. Bringas has prepared a reception for hm, with the aid of the palace guard but Nikephoros is too clever and, as soon as he sees Bringas approaching, he has his men fire at him with Greek fire and Bringas is burned to a cinder. Theophano cleverly welcomes Nikephoros and seduces him. (She is still young and attractive while he is an old and grizzled warrior.) They marry. However bad things were when Theophano was regent, they seem to be worse when Nikephoros becomes emperor. Corruption, brutality and court intrigue remain. Taxes are increased and the merchants are finding it difficult to compete with other Adriatic and Mediterranean trading ports. The poor, who have also had to face two earthquakes in the areas where they live, are starving. When they riot, they are brutally suppressed.

Clearly, the key issue is Greek fire. It is manufactured in a highly guarded factory, which no-one but the workers and emperor can enter. The workers have to stay there for life. The workers and their supervisor are people who have been condemned to death but reprieved on condition they are to work in the Greek fire factory for the rest of their lives and never leave. The supervisor has to have his tongue cut and eardrums burst so he cannot impart the secret to anyone. The secret is written in a parchment which the supervisor keeps in his highly secure room. A new supervisor is appointed and he accepts on condition that he can have an outlook on the sea (he had previously been a sailor.) This is agreed and a small tube is made in the thick wall for him to see out. It has a door at the end which he can shut to prevent anyone getting in, One day he is found dead in his room with the parchment missing. His Leo, Nikephoros’ chief minister, is instructed to investigate. He realises that only a very small person could have entered down the tube, the only possible entrance, and then only come through the door if the supervisor let him in. No-one is allowed to leave the place and Leo investigates.

From this point, the focus is mainly on the Greek fire parchment. Everyone seems intent on using the issue to get at rivals, enemies or just people they do not like. There are plots and counter-plots, conspiracies, torture, murder, exile and imprisonment. There are several suspects, often those in high places. We know how it will end because history tells us. Theophano conspires with John I Tzimiskes to overthrow Nikephoros, though things do not necessarily go all her own way.

This book, as I mentioned, is quite different from the usual Malerba style. There is none of the distorted reality, unreliable narrator or somewhat surrealistic approach. Instead, he tells a very realistic story of a difficult period in Byzantine history, replete with all the conspiracies, gruesomeness, violence and plotting, with the Byzantine love of intellectual and philosophical repartee. No-one comes out of it looking good, except perhaps John I Tzimiskes and even he has been party to conspiring to overthrow the emperor, who was his uncle. If you like a good Byzantine (in both senses of the word) historical novel with all that that implies, you will enjoy this one, providing you can read Danish, French, German, Italian, Russian or Spanish, as it is not available in English.

Publishing history

First published 1990 by Mondadori
No English translation
Published in French as Le Feu grégeois by Fayard in 1992
Published in German as Das griechische Feuer by Wagenbach in 1991
Published in Spanish as El fuego griego by Seix-Barral in 1991
Also published in Danish and Russian