Gods best unsung

Ragusa, modern Dubrovnik, Croatia

The Malacia Tapestry
by Brian Aldiss.
Triad/Panther 1978 (1976)

“Until you have understanding of your nature, your errors — like the errors of history — repeat and repeat themselves in an endless fiction. That is the only knowledge there is.”

‘The Ancestral Hunt’, Book Two

Picaresque, decadent, fantastical, political, dualistic — The Malacian Tapestry lives up to all of these aspects and more. As in the title of the dumb show, the staging of which threads its way through the novel, this novel is a Joyous Tragedy featuring intrigue and betrayal, love and hate, progressives and repressives, apotheosis and degradation.

Above all, its actors appear to be woven into a metaphysical tapestry which, in the opinion of one of the characters, is “presumably for the edification of the gods, who could then inspect us without interference.” Or, as a modern lyricist wrote, “Oh man, wonder if he’ll ever know | He’s in the best selling show.”

In this rococo novel Brian Aldiss weaves a splendid tapestry for our edification, interlacing philosophy and art as viewed through the self-centred eyes of its coxcomb narrator: drama, mime, fantoccini theatre, shadow-puppetry and rituals vie with love, lust, licentiousness for the attention of our greedy eyes. But, master magician that he is, Aldiss casts a spell so beguiling that we’re prepared to believe in sorcerers and astrologers, in mythical and prehistoric beasts, in a corrupt city state of unknown antiquity and in inhabitants with a touch of the reptilian about them.

Conjectured plan of Malacia © C A Lovegrove

Perian de Chirolo, who narrates, is a young jobbing actor who also wants to play “the dashing, man-about-town”. He is a true picaro or rogue, happy to filch food, indefinitely delay payments of debts, talk in moral terms about honour while indulging in casual sex with other men’s girlfriends and wives. He is nevertheless an engaging narrator, seemingly aware of and sorry for his failings yet unable to exert himself, his spirit willing but his flesh weak.

On the surface then Aldiss’s picaresque novel with its selfish protagonist might not appear an overly attractive proposition, but it is the world that he and his contemporaries inhabit, and which he describes in great detail, that draws us in. The fantastical world of Malacia and its neighbours, which superficially resembles the 18th-century city-states of the Adriatic, is in many ways larger than life. There’s plague and there’s poverty, menace from Ottoman Turks and Bosnian heretics, a secretive and repressive regime — but there are also flighted people, satyrs and lizard people, humans who believe themselves descended from dinosaurs, living dinosaurs called ‘ancestrals’ and creatures such as a “chick-snake”, possibly related to our mythical basilisk.

Malacia’s world is, moreover, a place dominated by two very different paradigms. One is magic: astrologers and magicians populate the city’s streets, routinely consulted by Perian and his friends, and he experiences some terrifying visions which make him think he’s been targeted by some malign spells, but the situation is complicated by tugs-of-war between Natural Religion and a Higher Religion.

That conflict is paralleled in the class system that permeates Malacia’s society: the ruling class controls by inertia and a resistance to change, supposedly under the benign decision of Malacia’s founder to establish it as “a place of happiness”. The middle classes try to maintain a working relationship with the status quo, the Progressives of the desperate underclasses look to innovation as a way to break that truly malign and repressive monopoly on power. Needless to say Perian is inadvertently caught up in those conflicts, only to find himself in situations way over his head.

Basilisk, Malacia’s ‘chick-snake’?

The Malacia Tapestry is a veritable narrative tour de force, depicting a vast sweep of life within just a few eventful months. We see the anachronistic invention of photography and a veritable fight with a dragon; we witness Perian’s bawdy adventures while the city under siege and marvel at gas balloon ascents; and we begin to understand that Perian has a lot to gain in the areas and self-knowledge and understanding. As one of his casual flings, La Singla, tells him, not long after his realisation that he isn’t living a charmed life like the hero of a fairytale, “You still have to distinguish between life and art, that’s all — yes, and between art and artifice.”

Like the callow romantic youth he remains he wants to believe the dictum of a friend that “Reality is so unpleasant” — it’s a belief shown by the persistence throughout the novel not just of dramatic narratives but also of the visual arts — tapestries themselves of course, the zahnoscope slides, etched images on glass, unfinished frescos, paintings in a garden pavilion, embroidered costumes, even a camera obscura — and of poetry and song. As the Malacian poet K G St Chentero wrote,

But I know that there are gods behind the gods,
Gods that are best unsung.

Perian’s sister Katarina tells him at one point that she was “trying to imagine a land that no human eyes have seen.” This is what Aldiss has splendidly achieved — which, I suppose, makes him one of the gods behind Malacia’s gods who is indeed unsung.

8 thoughts on “Gods best unsung

    1. It’s a measure of a novel’s positive impact on me when I keep thinking about it (and rabbiting on about it in posts!) — and that applies to this title for sure! If I persuade you to read and hopefully enjoy it my job will have been done. 🙂 (Did I say this was a reread?!)

      Liked by 1 person

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