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The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

19 April 2007

Rule-Breaking The Carpet Makers Succeeds on Several Levels

Andreas Eschbach published his science-fiction novel Die Haarteppichknupfer in Germany in 1995. It made its way to the United States in 2005 only after Orson Scott Card heard of Eschbach and commissioned a partial translation of Die Haarteppichknupfer. At Card's urging, Tor published the book in English under the title The Carpet Makers.

The book starts out deceptively simply, following the lives of people living in a small town on a planet whose sole export is carpets meant for the court of the Emperor. Each man works his whole life on one extremely detailed carpet, which he weaves to his own design from the hair of his wives and daughters. When the carpet is finished, he sells it. His son lives off the proceeds for the rest of his life while he weaves his own carpet. In this society, daughters are prized for their hair, but there is no place for extra sons, who are killed. This economic system has been in place for thousands of years.

The book defies accepted conventions for genre fiction in several ways.
•There is no protagonist. Or perhaps it would be better to say that each of the seventeen chapters has its own protagonist. No character lasts from beginning to end, which covers several generations in real time and tens of thousands of years in flashbacks.
•The location does not even remain the same. The book eventually abandons the small town for the larger canvas of a vast empire in the throes of reinventing itself after the death of its deathless Emperor.
•Many chapters stand alone as short stories. Chapter 1 was indeed written first as a short story, and I suspect many of the others were as well.
•The story builds to a climax that is not even hinted at in the first part of the book.
•The chapters have names instead of numbers—a convention that I like but that has fallen out of favor.

With no main character to identify with and no real plot, The Carpet Makers still succeeds as a satisfying work of science fiction.
•Over the course of the book, the seemingly unrelated chapters gradually weave together into a unified whole. In one sense, the book is a giant joke—a book about carpet makers is constructed like a carpet. This structure is probably the most important reason the book can please readers despite lacking a protagonist or plot. The whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts.
•Within each chapter, the focus is on characters—who they are, what they do, and why they do it. The reader can easily identify with them despite their puzzling circumstances. Eschbach skillfully draws a rich, full picture of the town's culture and later the empire's culture and history through these character sketches.
•The concept is poignant, with the pathetic carpetweavers and their descendents condemned to repeat the same sad life over and over with no chance of redemption. The events are sometimes so strange that the book has the mystical feel of a fantasy. The Carpet Makers is truly a book that carries you away to a different time and place.
•The book leaves the reader with questions about ethics and the winners and losers of culture change. (I am purposely vague to avoid spoiling the book for you, while letting you know you'll be thinking about this book long after you've finished it.)
•Eventually, one discovers that the book is a mystery of sorts—why are all these people weaving carpets, and what really happens to the carpets?—and the resolution is satisfying and terrifying.

Little science fiction from continental Europe makes it to the American reader. The Carpet Makers suggests that we may be missing out on some great books.

Meanwhile, we are lucky enough to have this one in translation. If you're interested in science fiction that stretches the boundaries, try The Carpet Makers.


Sphinx Ink said...

It sounds interesting, and an unusual concept, but I don't know that I'll try it. I generally don't care for "saga"-type novels that stretch over generations; I usually prefer novels that have one or two main characters--hero/heroine--and focus on part of their lifetimes only. (I've no objection to series of novels that cover the main character's entire life over the course of the series--e.g., Robert B. Parker's Spenser series.) I must say, the author of THE CARPET MAKERS obviously has a great imagination. What I've always admired about SF/F writers is the creative leaps of their minds.

Shauna Roberts said...

Perhaps part of the reason I enjoyed The Carpet Makers was that I love "cast-of-thousands" books with intertwined plot lines. It was strange not to have one main hero in the book. But the gradual unveiling of the universe and its culture made up for it. Perhaps the culture itself was the protagonist.