Sunday, March 15, 2009

Andreas Eschback's The Carpet Makers

The Carpet Makers is the first novel written by the German author Andreas Eschbach. It just happened to win the SFCD-Literature Prize, or as it is now called The German Science Fiction Award. Eschbach's second novel, Solarstation, won Germany's other prestigious SF award, the Kurd Lasswitz Award. Just to demonstrate that this wasn't a fluke, his third novel, The Jesus Video, won both awards. The film version of his third novel came out in 2002. Unfortunately I am having a problem finding it available. As far as I can find out, The Carpet Makers is the only work of Eschbach's that has been translated into English. I hope this changes soon.

The setting is perhaps 100,000 years in the future. Humans have spread throughout countless planets. This is the story of one planet, politically, culturally, economially, and militarily very insignificant, but it has one strange and remarkable export: hair carpets. The most important people on the planet are the hair-carpet makers. Each carpet maker makes only one carpet during his lifetime. It is made of the hair of his wives and daughters. The carpet maker, however, is allowed only one son; if a second son appears, one must be killed.

The reason for this is simple. By the time the hair-carpet is finished, the maker is old and near death. He gives the carpet to his son who sells it to a hair-carpet trader, when one appears. The son then takes the money and sets up his own household where he will begin making his own hair carpet, usually with the tools and equipment that belonged to his father. He and his family must live on the proceeds from the sale of his father's hair carpet. At the end of his life, when he has finished his hair carpet, he will then give it to his son, and the pattern repeats itself, as it has now for thousands of years.

Hair-carpet traders travel from small town to village, buying up hair carpets and eventually reaching the capital, where he sells the hair carpets to the Imperial trader. All hair carpets are purchased by representatives of the Emperor, who has need of an immense number of these carpets, presumably for his palace.

This has been going on for thousands of years, but now something is wrong. Rumors have sprung up that claim that the Emperor has abdicated. No one knows where these rumors come from, but everybody has heard them. Moreover, one hair carpet trader has kept records for many years and has discovered that the number of traders has diminished and the number of carpets has also dwindled considerably, and there seems no reason for either decrease.

I was confused when I first picked up The Carpet Makers. It's narrative structure is unusual, a bit disconcerting. Each chapter has a different POV character, and there are seventeen chapters. The first chapter features a carpet maker, the second a hair-carpet trader, the third a teacher, the fourth another hair-carpet maker, the fifth an old itinerant peddler woman, and the sixth an off-planet foreigner.

It wasn't until the third or perhaps fourth chapter that I finally realized what Eschbach was doing. The narrative structure is modeled on the structure of the hair carpets themselves. The carpet makers use the strands of hair to create his carpet, and each strand, although short, was intricately interwoven with other strands to create a pattern. Borlon, the carpet maker who appears in Chapter Four, has two wives, one with blond hair and one with black hair and creates the pattern in the carpet with those two colors.

Eschbach does the same with his strands/chapters of various characters. This would result in a very choppy structure, with a jerky narrative flow, except for something that Eschbach does. In each chapter, Eschbach has inserted back references and forward references to other chapters in the work. Moreover, he has included two themes that appear in almost every chapter: one is that of the hair carpets themselves, and the other is the Emperor. This helps to unify the work.

Take for example, Chapter Five--"The Peddler Woman." A peddler woman is referred to in Chapters One, Two, and Four. When she finally appears in Chapter Five, we follow her as she visits the carpet makers Ostvan, who is featured in Chapter One, and Borlon, the carpet maker in Chapter Four. She also meets the foreigner who has been referred to in Chapter Three. This foreigner becomes the POV character in Chapter Six and he refers back to Chapters Three, Four, and Five.

The narrative structure is not composed of a single thread moving forward into the future, but of numerous short threads that tell the story of the hair carpets and the Emperor. We see many people whose lives collide, intertwine, proceed along the same path for a short period of time, and then diverge as they go their own way. I don't think I've ever read another story that is structured quite this way, and I find it intriguing. I wonder if the narratives in his other novels, of which I hear there are now eight, are constructed the same way.

The novel isn't a quick read, but it isn't a very complex work either which one must struggle to get through. It flows naturally from the small village to the large city to off-planet settings to a resolution that I did not in any way expect. This is one of the attractions of the novel: I had no idea where this story was going.

Overall Rating: a quiet story that will reward rereading. I hope The Carpet Makers does well enough to encourage translations of other works by Andreas Eschbach.

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