Translated by Doryl Jensen
Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers came to me via my husband Sean. Sean picked the book up at the library, starts reading, and right away suggests I would like it, even before finishing. He wrote this as comment on goodreads.com:
This was a real treat. The story is captivating and bizarre. The language is engaging. Though a scifi story I would not limit my recommendation to only those that are fans of the genre. Eschbach allows this book to meander through religious criticism, an updated Ecclesiastes with a new Solomon, and finally into what insanity, pride, and power can induce.
You can read Sean’s extended discussion from a couple days ago on omphaloskepsis here.
One of the ways Sean loves me is by sharing excellent things. Passing along this read was a valentine—in May.
First things: Andreas Eschbach is a German author. Orson Scott Card was at a science fiction convention in France when he heard about “the most exciting new writer in the world” (so the foreword reads). Card was impressed by the man, and after requesting, was given works to take home to Doryl Jensen (a friend and translator; “fine writer and poet”) for translating. The story “blew [Card] away.” When Card recovered he talked to his publisher Tor and arrangements brought English readers The Carpet Makers. Card writes this about the writer Eschbach in the foreword: “Eschbach is a novelist with vision, with compassion, and with a sense of tragedy, of character, of spectacle, and of human possibility, and also human inevitability.” Yes. And I challenge you to read The Carpet Makers and disagree.
One of the reasons Sean thought I would appreciate The Carpet Makers is that I have expressed some repulsion over the idea of delving into many (excellent) sci-fi sagas, because, well, they are encapsulated in massive tomes; tomes, plural; and sometimes the author dies before they are done and then their heirs extend it out for a few more bucks books.
The Carpet Makers would involve itself in thousands of years, “Since the time of pre-history […] Since the beginning of time itself” (Publisher’s comments). “This art [hair-carpet making] descends from father to son.” You can read saga into this one, can’t you? But, as Sean pointed out, in 304 pages?
Enter the Short Story Writer. Card notes in the foreword that when asking for “something short […] something I could take home and ask a friend to translate for me” he discovers that “the first chapter of Eschbach’s most noted novel had existed first as a short story. So [he] took that, and [Eschbach’s] synopsis of the rest of the plot, to Doryl.” As a writer of Short Story, Eschbach is aware of the need to craft the impressive scope of millennium not into the volume of page and text, but into the awe of a word or phrase: or in the case of The Carpet Makers, in the use of easily contemplated and calculated horror.
You do not have to wait for the horror, nor will you be able to dispose of it quickly. As the collection of vignettes build, the terrible and tragic deepens, and thus the scope of time is simultaneously grasped and impossible to imagine.
I really don’t want to spoil the potential ecstasy for each entry in The Carpet Makers, because if you are like me at all, the well turned plot is a joy forever. My breath was quick when I finished reading “I: The Carpet Makers.” I did not see that end in coming. I wasn’t expecting it. And why? Cause who would dare end a story that way?! Besides maybe Kate Chopin. I had a pleasured sigh for every single story, or that “of course” chuckle. I even hugged the book a couple of times.
Each entry is a short story, and as Sean noted “each [are] tangentially interrelated. Intimate conversation here, galactic orientation there. This particular device removes any one character from our story as important. Well, any character, save one. The Emperor.” Each story references the previous entry, a fine thread; however, each is written as its own. You are made to feel for the characters (whether out of sympathy or disgust) in each of the stories. There are ideas held within each that are of interest and worthy conversation. But all are collected into greater focus. The Carpet Makers is not about “any one character…save The Emperor;” the Emperor, and Vengeance.
There are mysteries to uncover. Each story holds enlightening pieces of information. What images/illustrations Eschbach may be looking for, however, might not be the reader’s. A Hero, for example. Or even Hope. This is not a criticism to my mind. However…
The new interstellar government learns the emperor secretly maintained thousands of carpet-making planets. Why? Eventually, the reader finds out the answer, though the revelation comes almost as an afterthought. While Eschbach’s vignettes do form a fragile whole, the structure lacks urgency or focus. There’s bound to be extra publicity because Orson Scott Card, who provides an intro, helped discover the book, but while Card fans will enjoy the large-scale world building and historical detail, they may be disappointed by the lack of real characters or sustained plot. Publishers Weekly
Perhaps the revelation appears like “an afterthought” because the revelation is lost in the incredulity in which the reader finds themselves. Which causes us to reconsider whether that ‘Why?’ is central to the book; and whether we can accept “because I can” as an answer.
Publishers Weekly sees a “lack of urgency.” I could agree. Though each story pulls you in they do not necessary send you to the next. You become acquainted with being robbed of happy endings and logical explanations. The sense of dread builds and one really should look away. You worry after catharsis. You want to continue, and yet not.
I cannot agree, nor will I, with the criticism that The Carpet Makers’ “lacks focus.” The Emperor is ever present; and in fact, inescapable. The theme Vengeance is also present and inescapable; and seemingly inevitable. Perspectives are facets to be explored. And Time is non-linear; stories are not necessarily chronological.
Sean and I were talking about the idea of traditional sci-fi “enjoy[ing] large-scale world building and historical detail.” Whereas say Frank Herbert is exploring this world and its inhabitants in Dune, Eschbach is concerned with exploring ideas, and is using these constructed worlds/inhabitants as tools, rather unapologetically. The Carpet Makers is thematic; almost exclusively. The answers to Why on the physical plane cannot be separated from the metaphysical/internal/spiritual motivations/questions. This is not to say that Eschbach steeps his stories in allegory, metaphoric, or dreamlike-hypnotic states. Perhaps we wish he had, because the sheer humanness is incredibly painful at times; and in the readers recognition of the human, the reader cannot separate themselves and easily Other the figures played out before them.
Perhaps Card fans will find disappointment in finding only short passages (via dialogue primarily) alluding to a greater world and its history; however there should be no evidence of a “lack of real characters or sustained plot.” Aspects of the Emperor’s portrait are added with each story, but within each story there are developed characters. And some carry those images with them into other stories, only to be added to (or to be mourned more deeply). If “real” means we know what they subside on daily, what time of day to expect bowel movements, or whether it is usual for them to visit every other market stall on Thursdays with their detailed-described pet falcon, the expectant reader will be disappointed. If by “real” we are referring to multi-dimensional characterizations (physical descriptions, internalizations, dialogue, reactions/responses by others, etc.) and a readers ability to realize them, possibly relate, and or emotively connect/respond to than Eschbach more than proves himself with creating a cast for each piece. The character Ostvan may be one of the most distasteful figures in the book and yet his beauty is undeniable by page end. Ostvan transcends an Idea, even as he remains one of the strongest arguments for the complexity of an Idea. He is tragic not only because he is a tool of the emperor, or representative of zealotry, but because he is human with an understanding of loss and sacrifice.
If a reader is looking for a formulaic science fiction novel, The Carpet Makers is not it. This is where the reader of mainstream sci-fi may find disappointment. However, that Eschbach chooses not to sustain a plot for more than 304 pages does not mean a plot is not sustained. Can you tell that the comments by Publishers Weekly bothered me? A storyline is held, even as it is revealed. The ability to write the summary, as Publisher’s Weekly has, supports this. And even if the article sees the revelation as “an afterthought” the revelation is present. And it is satisfactory, despite its possible irrationality.
I said that The Carpet Makers collects its short stories into a greater focus; each entry a short story to be woven and laid into a whole. I neglected the epilogue which belongs to the book. The epilogue brings the stories together into a sense of resolution. The over-arching themes and story’s catharsis is housed here. Don’t read it or the last page before reading the rest. You won’t understand it.
In the meaninglessness (senselessness) that pervades the book, we find the human heart on the last pages. And we can sense this, and find meaning. When humanity feels lost in its inevitability, we are gifted a perspective that would provide possibility; and plausibility. For all the times the question Why arises in the text, we are finally given an answer we want to relate to, on a human scale and a universal one: Love. For all the other times we’ve found an answer to Why we didn’t want to find relation to the answer: Vengeance. In the end we are rescued from inevitability, and gifted possibility. However, both Love and Vengeance; inevitability and possibility; are not without elements sacrifice.
The Carpet Makers explores a world where a Theocracy would be dismantled. The Emperor has purposefully set up a dystopic galaxy to replace a utopic one. This is a reversal from the expected. That is not to say the emperor hadn’t envisioned his own utopia and carried it out in his own other galaxies (only to see it fail); though its dystopic elements are not readily apparent. And the Rebels (who would overthrow the emperor) would have their utopic vision (flaws apparent) foreseen as doomed to fail (the glorified Jubad; the “education squad” destroying dismantling cultures (they’ve yet to fully understand)) all in the name of enlightenment and progress, oh, and freedom. In seeking Vengeance is to found Dystopia? Our most Utopic visions, tending to be Religious, can be revealed as horrifyingly not? Thinking here…
Eschbach holds a compassionate gaze. Those zealous in their following of the Emperor come under harsh criticism. The carpet makers kill their sons, after having one, in the tradition of their caste. Their guilds have regulations regarding the giving loans (and thus livelihoods) to those carpet maker’s in need (“The Lost Carpet”). The carpet makers choose wives based on the quality of their hair (“The Peddler Woman”). They are merciless with heretics, but other crimes…(“The Hair-Carpet Preacher). They do not make room for exceptions (or even reason) (“Flute Fingers”). One would think, no Emperor? Freedom? Let’s change! To the reader’s frustration, this is not the common response. And those who would desire change feel very real pain in their conflict with the ingrained belief system in which they were raised. Eschbach does not remove the characters (however unpopular) from the realm of human emotion and human frailties, or strengths, for that matter. He does not demonize one for the sake sanctifying others. Unless the demonizing of the Emperor serves this use. But then, the Emperor is human.
So, the Emperor is human; though somewhat god-like in that he has become immortal. We could explain his brilliance in strategy and logic as having come from ambition to be so, and years of experience. But he is human. And he does die. But he is never truly demystified. Jubad is not truly convinced as to the reason for his “problem” (I don’t want to spoil anything terribly). Superstition could be claimed—coincidences, as Jubad himself lays out. But as he isn’t, as if the idea of deification transcended into the station of deity…and that to move against the Emperor did carry with it some form of punishment, revenge.
Eschbach is a excellent guide for the non-sci-fi reader. His explanations as to how mechanisms work is easy to imagine. He uses familiar enough landscapes. His descriptive abilities are wonderful. “They leapt aside in fright and shot back into their holes as though drawn by strings when a cloaked figure approached with rapid steps;” (140). “The gray-brown dust that gnaws mercilessly and ceaselessly at the stone ornamentation of the palace” (225); gnaws, not gnawed; “The Palace of Tears” is without dialogue with pages of situating/setting, capturing the devastation, and the sorrow.
The Carpet Makers is a lovely and exciting book.
In thinking about my notes, I realized that I had made Vengeance the human inevitable, and Love the human possibility. My sunny disposition, I suppose; or the lure of each story leading into the epilogue. What difference can be read into this book if Love were human inevitability, and Vengeance their possibility. If Vengeance is the possible answer than the senselessness of the violence bleeding through the pages and stories is an interesting answer to the question of Why. Why are things the way they are? As it is, the goings-on make the Love and the Rational the senseless response, and Vengeance the only logical one.