Listening carefully to characters over the white noise of history


ESSAYS: ARMINTA WALLACEreviews Traces Remain: Essays and ExplorationsBy Charles Nicholl Allen Lane, 318pp. £20

SOME WRITERS ARE so good at what they do that they can take you anywhere. Charles Nicholl is one of them. His study of the life, and violent death, of Christopher Marlowe, The Reckoning, is still one of my favourite books of all time. Over the past two decades Nicholl has applied his magpie mind to all sorts of subject matter, from the poet Arthur Rimbaud’s life in Africa to the crimes of Jack the Ripper, from Dickens’s pet raven to the Mexican poet-boxer Arthur Cravan.

This book is a collection of 30 essays and occasional pieces, written for the Times Literary Supplement, Grantaand the London Review of Books. Some relate to Nicholl’s researches for his historical biographies. Some do not. All, though, are marked by his trademark delight in arcane detail, his skill as a historical detective and, above all, his knack for bringing the mesmerised reader splashing happily in his wake.

The opening essay, The Field of Bones, sets the scene perfectly. We are in India in the 17th century. A man stands at the gates of the town of Mandu, in Madhya Pradesh, his native clothes the worse for wear, his body thin to the point of emaciation. He is the English traveller Thomas Coryate, author of one of the first travel books to become a bestseller; failed courtier; and general Renaissance man. Nicholl brings this forgotten individual to life with a few swift strokes: his “solemn, elongated face and Jimmy Hill beard”.

The rest of the essay conveys the atmosphere of English expatriate India at the time when, back in London, Shakespeare’s Tempest was all the rage. It ends with Nicholl’s unsuccessful search for Coryate’s grave – the “field of bones” of the title. Between first page and last is a selection of the sort of improbable details that make reading Nicholl an adventure in itself. “The comic actor Will Kemp had morris-danced from London to Norwich in 1599 and had published a book about it, Kemps Nine Daies Wonder. . .” And so on.

How does Nicholl winkle this stuff out? By spending many hours in the archives, poring over inconsistencies in spelling, arcane legal documents and scraps of half-remembered records, I imagine. Death of an Alchemistretraces the steps of the clairvoyant and con man Edward Kelley, who died in prison in Bohemia in the spring of 1597. Kelley went to Prague with the magus John Dee, claiming they could turn base metal to gold – the passion of the age – and earning himself a Bohemian knighthood from Emperor Rudolf II.

Scratch the surface of the title, as Nicholl does, and you discover that Kelley boasted a grandiose (and possibly fictional) Irish lineage linked to the Maine family of Galway and Roscommon, whose name Uí Mháine was also written as “Imany”. He also had no ears. Or maybe just one ear, the other having been (possibly) chopped off in the pillory.

Towards the back of the book are more modern mysteries: the disappearance of an American businessman, Jim Thompson, after a picnic at a hill station in the Cameron Highlands of central Malaysia in 1967. The disappearance of Col Fawcett in the Amazon a century ago. Back in the 16th century, meanwhile, Nicholl is on the trail of giants. “There are stories about giants in just about every language in the world,” begins the piece entitled Conversing with Giants, “but this one is different.” Who would not want to read on?

One of the most recent, and saddest, essays concerns the Latvian gold prospector Alexander Laime, who has lived alone in a hut on the banks of the River Carrao, in Venezuela, for more than half a century. The sadness relates to the legacy of prospecting for gold in the Venezuelan landscape – the indiscriminate use of mercury to fix the particles of gold in alluvial gravels poisons both rivers and people – rather than to Laime himself, a man of few words who is still convinced that he’ll strike it rich any day.

“He has rheumy eyes, and smells of river-water,” Nicholl writes. “He wears a baseball cap, and when he takes it off I see that his hair is still sandy: remarkable for a man in his 80s who subsists on a diet of rice, macaroni, sugar and lemon grass tea.”

Another essay, another extraordinary individual introduced to us as deftly as if he were sitting at our kitchen table. “They were audible for a moment above the white noise of history but can no longer be deciphered,” Nicholl writes of one of his characters.

Well, not quite. Nicholl has listened carefully, and deciphered them for us – and our world is the richer for it.

Arminta Wallace is an Irish Timesjournalist