The second story in Mark Valentine's collection The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things keeps the reader in the Middle East. He begins by reminding us how inextricably entwined British imperial shenanigans were in the current state of the region.
A group of British army cooks in Allenby's army, which is fighting the Turks, are sent out to forage for chickens. They instead encounter the Mayor of Jerusalem, who wishes to surrender. The keys of the city are offered, and duly passed on to senior officers - but one extra key, wrapped in a scrap of paper, is given to the cook covertly by the mayor. The cook passes it to an army chaplain. The paper seems to depict a strange coat of arms...
The story is told in the form of three transcripts of interviews with the cook, the chaplain (in old age) and an expert on heraldry. The key is linked a missing order of Crusaders, it is claimed. But the man who went in search of the hidden truth is long since vanished.
There is an elusive magic in this story, reminiscent of Borges' intellectual puzzles that leave the reader feel that he's playing a game without knowing the rules. I liked it, others might not appreciate its ambiguity. But this is a story about the Middle East, and simple resolutions are not available.
More from this running review soon! I'm enjoying this book - it makes an ideal read for snowbound misanthropes.