ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, has taken a leave from writing tales of contemporary angst or what he calls typical New Yorker marital discord fare, to write a short adventure novel unlike any adventure novel you could imagine. "Gentlemen of the Road" was serialized in the New York Times magazine this year. It is a swashbuckling tale set around a thousand years ago in the kingdom of the Khazars between the Black and Caspian Seas. The Khazars were Turkic people who embraced Judaism, and Michael Chabon writes in the afterword that his original title for the novel, which is still his private name for it, was Jews with swords.
And Michael Chabon, you write to people that you were joking when you talked about your book, Jews with swords.
Mr. MICHAEL CHABON (Author, "Gentlemen of the Road"): Yeah. That was usually good for a laugh. That's like - it's just like saying pigs in space or something like that, that there's a kind of incongruity there in most people's minds.
SIEGEL: We don't associate the Jews with being soldiers of fortune along the Silk Road or being in brawls in inns and caravansaries along the way.
Mr. CHABON: No, there's not a really great tradition of the kind of standard tale of adventure in the Jewish literary tradition, that's for sure.
Mr. CHABON: I'm sorry about that. I wish there were. I'm trying to do my part.
SIEGEL: Well, is it too weighty to say that you're addressing ideas of Jewish identity and self-image in "Gentlemen of the Road?"
Mr. CHABON: I'm - I don't think so. I mean, to me a book, being an adventure story in theory, anyway, shouldn't be incompatible with its having more serious thematic concerns. You know, I think this novel, at least I hope, it has serious thematic concerns, but I also hope that it wears them rather lightly.
SIEGEL: It's a novel set long ago in a place far, far away. How much research did you put in to reconstructing Khazaria in the year 10,000?
Mr. CHABON: Well, I did what I could. There's really not that much available out there. There's a very well-known or at least one time, well-known book, the Arthur Kessler book about the Khazars, which, unfortunately, has been since largely discredited, but still has good information in there, and that there are at least information I thought I could use. There's a fair amount available on the Web, and I was - I did a lot of poking around. As with every book I've ever done when you - you always arrive at a point at which you can't do anymore research and you have to just start making the stuff up. I arrived at that point a little more quickly with this book.
SIEGEL: Well, one thing that you obviously love in writing is using exotic words and interesting words that are, are going to make us at least stop and look at that sentence a second time or maybe even go to, I would, say the dictionary. I would have said that 20 years ago, but go to - Google that word instead now.
Mr. CHABON: I mean, I love words. I have a head for words. I have an ear for them. If I see a word, an unfamiliar word, I remember it. It sticks around. And I do like to use them. I'm fascinated by word histories. And my sense of the English language is of this immense treasury, just packed with words from every era, every land, from the entire history of the human race, and I just can't imagine, honestly, not availing myself as much of those words as I possibly can. I mean, I try not to be too show-offy about it, but sometimes you, there's a word that's so great, you just got to use it.
SIEGEL: Okay. Well, here's the ALL THINGS CONSIDERED vocabulary list for this week, and I want you to describe to us what some of these words mean.
Mr. CHABON: Okay.
SIEGEL: One of the first we encounter in the book is, I gather a garment it's, is it a bambakion or…
Mr. CHABON: Bambakion, yes.
SIEGEL: Bambakion, yeah.
Mr. CHABON: That is a kind of armor, protective armor that was worn in the very early medieval period, especially by soldiers of the Roman Empire, the Eastern Empire, the Byzantine Empire. It was very rudimentary, heavily quilted garment that was going to offer you some kind of protection against slashing weapons. And that's a Greek word, bambakion.
SIEGEL: Later on in the book, our heroes encounter a group of rhadanites, a travelling rhadanites.
Mr. CHABON: That was really the great discovery for me. The word is great word, and what it refers to is even better. The rhadanites are very shadowy, mysterious people. They were Jews of whom very little is known. At one time, they were the greatest traders in the world. They - nobody knows quite for sure where they came from. There's a lot of disagreement about where their base of operations was. But they largely maintained the great trade routes of, between East and West after the collapse of the Roman Empire and before the rise of, kind of, renaissance trading. They were the primary people responsible for keeping open those great caravan routes and so on. And I was fascinated by them.
SIEGEL: Back to a common noun, there's an asphodel. A-S-P-H-O-D-E-L.
Mr. CHABON: That's a kind of flower.
SIEGEL: Flower. Simple.
Mr. CHABON: Yeah.
SIEGEL: And one that we can't even find Googling it is a japshigar(ph).
Mr. CHABON: That's a tough one. That' is a Khazar word. And, I mean, it seems to be an authentic piece of the Khazar language. The one really reliable source of information out there, a book by a man named Kevin Brooks, about the Khazars breaks down the degrees of ranking in the Khazar army. And that is one of the ranks in the Khazar army, the japshigar.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIEGEL: A rank in the army of the Khazars.
Mr. CHABON: Yes. It's like a commander of some kind.
SIEGEL: So little is - it has been left behind in the way the legacy of Khazaria that one could make up virtually anything about the Khazar language if you wanted to.
Mr. CHABON: That's the beautiful thing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CHABON: I'm sorry. You know, it's so hard to find pockets of the world that haven't already been, you know, trodden on by better writers. Khazaria had that quality for me of being this place that - you know, some people have heard about it and some things have been written about it and some study has been done, but it did feel like a kind of terra incognito to me.
SIEGEL: Obviously, you take delight even to just talking about the words that you write with. It's important to you.
Mr. CHABON: Yes. It makes me feel connected, ultimately, I think. You know, that, when I had to learn the history of a word, the origin in another language, from another part of the world or in some aspect of American history or British history or whatever it may be, I have a sense of handling some kind of very ancient material that I'm, you know, the way you might feel if somebody were to, you know, put one of Babe Ruth's baseball bats in your hands and say, here, give it a swing. And it bothers me to think there are all these words lying around that people aren't using.
SIEGEL: It does lead to the pleasant, if challenging, sensation of - in reading "Gentlemen of the Road" - feeling like one is reading a very elegant translation of, of the text from another language. We don't know what that language is, but in order to have to translate into these words, it must have been written originally in the language of the Khazars.
Mr. CHABON: Well, thank you. I really did want there to be a sense of strangeness. So that was my guiding principle in shaping the style of the book, was to try to, you know, it's written in English, but I wanted there to be a kind of slightly antique quality to it as if the whole thing feels like it's coming to you from a very different time and place.
SIEGEL: Well, Michael Chabon, author most recently "Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure," thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. CHABON: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you, Robert. Great to be here.
SIEGEL: And you can listen to Michael Chabon reading from his swashbuckling tale and hear the word bambakion in use at our Web site npr.org.