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.

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Worlds of possibility

‘River Landscape with the Church of SS Giovanni e Paolo, Rome’ by Jan Asselijn

Our world is only one of a number of alchemically conceivable worlds.

Book Two, ‘Woman with Mandoline in Sunlight’

In The Malacia Tapestry by Brian Aldiss (1976) we are given a portrait of an early modern Mediterranean city state, but one in which not homo sapiens but homo saurus is the dominant life form.

The author’s extraordinary vision envisages, in the words of the narrator-protagonist’s father, just one of many “other worlds of possibility”, and produces for our mind’s eye a series of tableaux of the landscapes and cityscapes the peoples of homo saurus stock inhabit, environments which are both like and yet unlike the ones we might be familiar with.

In preparation for a review (and very possibly another discussion post) I want to examine some of the real places Aldiss may have been inspired by in his creation of the maritime entrepôt that is Malacia.

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Æsahættr

Jacob wrestling with the angel by Delacroix (detail)

I promised I would return to some of the themes I alluded to in my review of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife. Even more than with Northern Lights, the first of the His Dark Materials trilogy, I feel that Pullman has interwoven literary and visual motifs into his narrative though most of the time we are deeply concerned with the characters involved and the excitement of a pacey plot.

But I’d like to emphasise that what follows is mostly speculation on my part, a personal response to what has struck me most during this reread and not necessarily what the author had originally intended. As has been pointed out to me by another more scholarly blogger, this is a manifestation of what academics call reader response theory: proposed by Stanley Fish, the controversial theory suggests that meaning isn’t inherent in the text but in the reader’s own mind, the text being only like a blank screen onto which the reader projects whatever pops into their mind.

Make yourself comfortable then, as the movie’s about to start.

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