Our modern age loves simplicity, and one solitary meaning. Aly’s was wiser by far, and loved how each new layer offered something different about the subject of interest. I follow him, not modernity, and so I incorporated twelve levels into his book. What are they? 

intercepts our attempts to make sense of our world. I do this not to prove how clever I am, since I long accepted the bitter truth that I am not, but - by occasionally using words from one word class as if they were from another, I hope to draw attention not only to the mischief words engage in, but also the malevolence of the rules by which they are strung together, and that we should have the courage to subvert their wicked designs as we wish.


There is the surface story of Aly, a tale of passion, outrage, anger, assassination, a tale beset by a panoply of hidden identities and political intrigues. It traces his life from birth as a slave, and accepted by Michelangelo as his son, and who depicted him secretly on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The boy then became an accomplished artist and assassin, hiding the details of his exploits in some hundreds of paintings that still exist. His great passion was to stop the barbarism perpetrated in the New World and Old.​​

The Duplicity of Truth

This links to another major theme, the seventh, that of the brittleness of certainty, the fraud of faith, and the duplicity of truth, and how one can live in a world where fact and fiction are inextricably mixed.

Words of Genius

The eighth level is more playful, and fictional in the sense that where great people have had something very relevant to say on events in the book, I have sometimes included them. I have added well-established quotes from Leonardo and Michelangelo, but you will also find other brief references to people not yet born when Aly was alive - from Cervantes to Ali Smith; Shakespeare, Chekhov, Tolstoy and Roland Barthes to Derek Walcott, Julian Barnes, Jamie Holmes, and my dear friend Ellen Dissanayake. So as not to disrupt the flow, but equally not to plagiarise them, I Italianised the names (except for Ellen, who remained English, and Derek, who became Flemish), and I referred to them only by their first names.

Renaissance and Slavery

Secondly, there is the setting: the Renaissance, in Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, England, and Scotland. It covers the first European visits to Brazil, China and Japan, and as a backdrop it addresses the horrors of the Spanish genocide in the Caribbean, and the birth of trans-Atlantic slavery.


Dark Secrets

Metaphor and Symbol

Third, it offers major revelations regarding the lives of the period’s most famous characters, not only in who was related to whom, but also the many aliases that collapse into certain hitherto much misunderstood characters. In particular it looks at the double lives of the artists Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Durer; the explorers Columbus, Bartolomeo Dias, and Pedro Alvares Cabral; the conquistadors Pizarro and Cortes; and the monarchs Edward V (who survived the Tower), and Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary I (all of whom were murdered). It also reveals that Elizabeth I had a child she called Robert...

The ninth is the metaphorical and symbolic layer, one of light and shadow, of the wind and ocean; time as seen through the hourglass, candle, sundial and clock, and through the aging of the human body; of labyrinths, monsters, heroes and scarlet threads; of indulgences, pilgrimages and relics; of leaves and shadows; of stepping stones true and false, and the perilous gaps between them; of camouflage and deception - husks and the seed within, of peel and fruit, bark and the trunk inside, and the sword and its scabbard.

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What's Life For?

The tenth is mythological, drawing as Aly would have, not only from Hebrew legend and the Bible, but from that of the Greeks and native Caribbean people, and that of King Arthur, a famous version of which became a best seller just seven years before he was born. This is not only to try to conjure up some of the feeling of the time, but because the characters – the Chimera, the Ouroboros, Nemesis, Polyphemus and Medusa all play a vital part, and offer useful mental tools for better understanding our times.

​​Fourth, trying to speak as a 72 year-old for someone who died in his eighties, there is an exploration of what life is for. This takes many forms, including parallels in art: how one adds pigment to create a painting, but chips away at the stone to create a sculpture, and how one finds inspiration in chaos.

Counterfeit Universe

Buried Deep

​​Fifth, the narrative examines the role of words and narratives in creating a second, counterfeit universe, a lie that masquerades as the world of our experience, distorting our view of life, and leading us to be endlessly deceived. And this leads to the next level:

The eleventh? Well, I kept noticing parallels between this story and the oldest legend we now know, one discovered in recent times written in cuneiform inscriptions on tablets of clay… The story wasn’t known in Aly’s day, but its echoes doubtless had an impact, so I tucked it away where only the most observant and determined will find it.

More Mischief of Words

Beyond this duplicity of words, the book also glances at the role of grammar and syntax in structuring and subverting our understanding of the world. Unashamedly inspired by the Sapir-Wharf Hypothesis, this level is deliberately subversive, trying to undermine the rigidity with which syntax rules our thinking. Some nouns and adjectives and about 30 adverbs have been 'verbed' to throw new light on the way language

Number Twelve?

​​And the twelfth? The most important of all, but I’ve said enough. That is for you to find! One of the purposes of art is to deepen the mystery, after all!