I finally managed to visit Palermo, Sicily in June 2017. I’ve been living in Italy since October 1986, but Palermo was one of the very few places still on my list to visit. As I wandered around its ancient streets, a strange feeling of déjà vu niggled. I guess this is what happens when you’ve visited a place on the internet on numerous occasions before ever getting there. I revelled in a succession of vivid sensory experiences, all new and yet oddly familiar. I’ll never forget seeing the red cupolas of San Giovanni degli Eremiti emerging from their screen of palm trees as I rounded a corner. Or the thrill of finally seeing the austere Norman Palace, where the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, had his court. In my novel, A Matter of Interpretation, these two locations provide a setting for the protagonist, Canon Michael Scot, his abbot, Hugo de Clermont, and their clashes secular power. For me, then, finally seeing Palermo in real life had something of the uncanny, almost like discovering a parallel universe. I am really grateful to the internet, however, for the images I managed to make use of in creating a convincing sense of place.
A Matter of Interpretation was a long time in the making. The novel explores the 13th-century struggle on the part of those wielding power to retain their hegemonic grip on the transmission of knowledge. It all started in a UCD tutorial room. It was there, studying Italian, that I first began to explore the figure of Frederick II. Not only was he a figure of interest from a historical point of view, but he also appeared in Dante’s Divine Comedy, in the sixth circle of hell among the heretics. From the tutorial room in Belfield, this vista of a remote world seemed dazzling and unsettling in equal measure, and at its centre was the compelling figure of Frederick. The tragic trajectory of his life would stay with me for decades.
Then I moved to Italy and other questions began to take form in my mind. The experience of living in a country, whose language and culture were so different to my own, ejected me so ruthlessly from my comfort zone that I turned to writing as a way of making sense of it. Short stories followed, with A House of Cards being published by Pillar Press in 2006. But the figure of Frederick was still at the back of my mind. Something about the way he had managed to bring together such disparate strands of humanity and meld them into a cohesive whole struck a chord. I was experiencing how tricky it can be to navigate the codes, spoken and unspoken, of life in a foreign country. Once again, I returned to how Frederick had achieved this for a brief moment in the Middle Ages. I felt that there was something here that needed to be explored and given a voice.
It was when I came across Canon Michael Scot, Frederick’s tutor in Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, that I knew I had found my protagonist. Wayward and brilliant in equal measure, he was an enigma to his contemporaries, who feared his multi-faceted, questing intelligence. I looked into his life and saw that he too had earned Dante’s censure: in fact, Dante plunges him down to the eighth circle in hell – that of the soothsayers and necromancers.
In addition to this, as a Scotsman he would have been seen as a barbarian northerner. At that time the Mediterranean hub represented a beacon of civilization and learning, and this was where, at the invitation of the pope, Michael Scot came in his quest for knowledge. As a writer, however, I knew I had found the slanted view that would best serve my novel, for Michael Scot was the quintessential outsider with an outsider’s unaligned, unassimilated viewpoint.
A Matter of Interpretation mixes fact and fiction. I had a story that hung on real-life characters, but I needed to flesh the bones of this story out with invented ones. The issues the characters come up against are complex, for the early 13th-century represented a tipping point in the relationship between power and knowledge. The role of translation in this is of paramount importance, and in particular the transmission of the lost knowledge of Aristotle in the field of Natural Philosophy. This entailed its recovery through Arabic, and so Michael Scot goes to the Translation School in Toledo, where he enlists the help of a young Jewish assistant, Jacob Anatolio, and together they translate Aristotle’s work through the filter of Avicenna and Averroës.
This ground-breaking work is immediately banned by the papacy, which is doubly mistrustful of its provenance, insofar as it is the work of a heathen, filtered by infidels. Michael Scot must face his own demons as he endeavours to come to terms with the promptings of ambition and the demands of obedience.
Ultimately, the newly created role of the universities as autonomous centres of learning meant that the thirst for this new learning was such that the material was eventually made available. From it derived Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, which provided Dante with his doctrinal foundation for the Divine Comedy.
Michael Scot, flawed but visionary outsider, was a catalyst in pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge and finding a new equilibrium with power that is still relevant nowadays, as modern humanity struggles to find truth and knowledge in a world where those in power are determined to obfuscate them by submerging us in trivia.
(c) Elizabeth Mac Donald
About A Matter of Interpretation:
The Kingdom of Sicily, early thirteenth century. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II has, through invasion and marriage, expanded his empire, but always subject to the will of the pope and the rulings of the Church. Into this world of political and military intrigue steps Michael Scot, a young monk and barbarian from Scotland who tutored Frederick as a boy. Headstrong and determined, Michael Scot persuades the Emperor that translating the lost works of Aristotle would bring him a secret knowledge of science, medicine and astronomy that would advance his cause. Despite the pope declaring such translations heretical, the Emperor agrees that the Scot should proceed, sending him first to the famous translation schools of Toledo and from there to the Moorish library of Cordoba.
‘A rich tapestry full of period detail’ — George Szirtes, poet and translator
‘In lush historic prose, Elizabeth Mac Donald leads the reader on a complex journey’ — Nuala O’Connor, author of Becoming Belle
‘Mac Donald has succeeded in making the art of translation centre stage in a thrilling, witty, violent and mysterious debut filled with scheming characters.’ — Jen Calleja, author and translator, shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize
Order your copy online here.