Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

 Great Wall of China near Jinshanling. Photo credit: Jakub Hałun via Wikimedia Commons.

Great Wall of China near Jinshanling.
Photo credit: Jakub Hałun via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve just finished re-reading Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (you may already know he’s one of my favorite authors ever.) Re-reading this novel after reading the sequel, River of Stars, was a funny sort of slipping backward in time.

Like my blog post about River of Stars, the sequel to this isn’t really a review so much as my attempt to pull together some preliminary thoughts about what Kay is doing in these two books and to connect them to some of his consistent themes that he has explored in all of his novels. I’m offering disjointed snippets here, not trying to work them into an essay. But wanting to focus my thoughts by writing about things I’ve noticed as I’ve been reading.

I read both Under Heaven and then River of Stars when they were released and did my usual imitation of a hungry wolf devouring without slowing down to think. It’s been a couple of years and I thought it time to go back and re-read more carefully and with a more noticing eye.

I’m going about this re-reading in a backward sort of way because I re-read the second book, River of Stars, before I re-read the first book, Under Heaven. Oh well. Maybe though I missed some things from reading them out of order, it also let me notice some things I’d have missed otherwise. That’s my hope at any rate.

I didn’t start to take notes until the final third of River of Stars, but I began dog-earing pages and underlining passages from the very beginning as I read Under Heaven. I found myself marking much fewer passages. Mostly because Kay is doing much less of the intrusive, self-conscious voice of the narrator that so dominates River of Stars, the meta-narrative about the functions of historian/poet/storyteller.

In fact you only get that sort of musing in a couple of places in Under Heaven. Both of them are from the epilogue:

This passage treats about what historians know and don’t know:

It was said to be the case that the emperor’s favorite wife, regarded by some later historians as dangerously subtle and too influential, played a role in encouraging him to keep that agreement— with a view to securing Kitai’s boundaries.

Interesting to see that the historians here are not merely recorders of history, but are clearly public servants, mandarins, members of the bureaucracy, looking at history and using it to shape policy decisions. That word, “dangerously” isn’t a neutral one, but suggests the very writers of history are also shapers of history, making moves to prevent such danger from arising in the future.

There were stories told that the same imperial princess, who was also Shinzu’s second wife, understood more than she ought to have about this matter of the Bogü, but the details of this— the documents so vital to a historian— were lost.

Some even said this had been deliberate, but in truth the disruptions of those years, the burnings of cities and market towns, movements of people and armies, emergence of bandits, warlords, disease, and death, were so very great, it was hardly necessary to imagine or assume a purpose on anyone’s part if records disappeared

And it is always difficult, even with the best will in the world, to look back a long way and see anything resembling the truth.

Seasons tumble and pass, so do human lives and ruling dynasties. Men and women live and are remembered— or falsely remembered— for so many different reasons that the recording of these would take seasons of its own.

Every single tale carries within it many others, noted in passing, hinted at, entirely overlooked. Every life has moments when it branches, importantly (even if only for one person), and every one of those branches will have offered a different story.

Even mountains alter given enough time, why should not empires? How should poets and their words not become dust? Does not the true wonder emerge when something actually survives?

This is Kay’s technique in a nutshell: telling, hinting at, all the many other tales his tale carries. Trying to recover a little bit the lost tales that the poets could tell, had their words not been lost. This is why he writes fantasy instead of historical novels: it gives him freedom to recover imaginatively those lost worlds, the inner worlds of the poets, the silent worlds of the women (and men too, but especially the women) whose thoughts and words and deeds are lost to recorded history. Kay’s stories are about what is lost, about what is too fragile to be recovered in any way other than by the storyteller’s imagination. The stories that were never recorded or whose records were lost, the artifacts no archaeologist will ever recover either because they were too fragile or because they were deliberately destroyed.

* *

And Kay can find patterns— or impose them— patterns no historian could note or create. The storyteller’s liberty to do something different:

Conjunctions of this sort— events occurring at the same time, far apart— are seldom perceived by those living (or dying) through the moments and days involved.Only the patient historian with access to records is likely to discover such links, reading diligently through texts preserved from an earlier time and dynasty. He might take a scholar’s pleasure, of be moved to reflection, considering them.

The conjunctions do not always mean anything.

The timing of such moments doesn’t necessarily change the course of history, or throw illumination backwards upon how and why men did what they did.

The prevailing view of scholars was that only if it could be shown that event emerged from the same impulses, or if a significant figure came to know what had happened elsewhere, and when, did it become important to record such links in the record of the past.

There were some who suggested otherwise. Theirs was a view that held the past to be a scroll wherein the wise, unrolling it, could read how time and fate and the gods showed intricate patterns unfolding, and patterns could repeat.

Still, it is likely that even those of this opinion would have agreed that Shen Tai— that son of General Shen Gao, returning home— was not important enough in those early days of the An Li Rebellion for his movements to be part of any pattern that signified.

Only a tale spinner, not a true scholar— someone shaping a story for palace or marketplace— would note these conjunctions and judge them worth the telling, and storytellers were not important, either. On this, the historian-mandarins could agree.

I think this passage sets up what Kay is doing in River of Stars. He’s taking up this idea of the mandarin-historians versus the storytellers in a much more explicit way. (And by the way isn’t Kay the epitome of the tale spinner, the shaper of the story for the marketplace?)

But in RoS he also pulls in the poetry which is here in Under Heaven but in a much more understated way in the character of Sima Zian– who refuses to become entangled in politics– as well as in the poems that Tai himself composes, especially in the poetry contest his has with his brother, Liu. In River of Stars poetry is held up as yet another way of looking at the same material. The present voice as opposed to the past.

* *

Oh and speaking of present and past voices: At first I thought that Kay is doing something different with the present tense in UH than in RoS. But the more I think about it, the more I see the common thread. Both times the use of present tense is linked to a female character. (One exception in RoS, the scene at the beginning with Ren Daiyan in the grove with the play bamboo swords.)

In UH it’s Shen Li-Mei, Tai’s sister who is elevated to be an imperial princess so that she can be married off to a barbarian warlord, who is in first person. And in RoS it’s the poet, Lin Shan. Interesting that their names are similar, almost inversions of each other.

Why is it the female character in first person? Because hers is the story that historians do not record? The hidden, a-historical and therefore only existing in the present and never in the past? In River of Stars I was convinced that it was in present tense because Shan existed in the realm of lyric poetry, which can capture an experience and make it present. But Li-Mei is not a poet. So what is common is their femininity, their overlooked, unrecorded experiences which the mandarin-historians do not tell us. And yes, the lyric is a part of that, easily dismissed by historians. It’s a genre which seems to tell not of trivialities, but of a world that doesn’t matter to the historians. A world of women waiting for men at windows and at the top of stairs, as Kay puts it over and over again. Women who exist for men only as objects of desire, as political counters for alliances and treaties, as producers of heirs.

* *

The theme of loss and brokenness is represented by a verse of poetry that is quoted several times both in Under Heaven and in River of Stars: “I am powerless to amend a broken world.” On the surface the way this plays out is very different than In the Finavar Tapestry where the five protagonists all are powerful shapers of the world or in Tigana where Alessan is not at all powerless nor is Dianora. On the other hand in all of Kay’s books there is this sense of the tragedy at the heart of things. Alessan might not be powerless to try to right the wrong which has been done to his country. But even he cannot amend the brokenness. No, he’s not like Tai, on the outskirts of the action, barely brushing against the movers and shakers of history. He is one of the shapers of the world. Yet the brokenness remains. Dianora’s tragedy and Valentin’s, Alessan doesn’t even know of them, cannot grasp their horror. There is a deep sense of brokenness at the heart of all Kay’s books, one that I recognize as a sense of Original Sin.

Also a “grace note,” a reference to Kay’s other books, other worlds: “It occurred to him, still half asleep, that the way Chan Du had phrased that celebrated grief, it suggested other worlds than this. Others that might not need mending– or amending. The two words were not the same, Tai thought, though they glided into each other, in the way the best poetry did.” In all of Kay’s books there have been references to Fionavar, or sometimes Finavir, the first of all worlds, of which everything else is a shadow. And even in the Fionavar Tapestry, there were hints of an even more primal world, one that had never fallen into shadow.

What Fionavar represents to me is the longing for Eden or for heaven, for the unbroken world. It’s that sense that we were not made for this world, this vale of tears, but that we know that the brokenness is wrong, fundamentally. It’s not what the world was supposed to be. This world is not our final destination. There is something more, something better. Or we could not long for it.

* *

Another nod at Fionavar is in the one snippet of mythology we get in Under Heaven: the story of the Weaver Maid: “She sees the Weaver Maid set each evening, then the Sky River appear overhead as darkness deepens, and then the lost mortal lover rising east, on the far side of the River.” Kay’s theme of the goddess with the lost mortal lover echoes the story of Kevin in Fionavar.

“Nothing is forever, not since the world changed after the war in heaven.” Such a deep sense of original sin, original loss. I don’t know much about Chinese mythology, but this seems more Judaic than oriental.

* *

Sima Zian says: “I have sometimes dreamed of a second moon to write about. Wouldn’t that be a gift?” Which tells you this is NOT the same world as Lions and Sarantium, which do have two moons. In Kay’s writing it seems there are many worlds, not just one where he sets everything. In his own mythology, which he sets up in the Fionavar Tapestry, there are many shadows of Fionavar. It’s really Kay’s own private multiverse, his way of framing his stories. It gives him freedom to shape each world to its own story and yet to have a continuity, a wholeness to his work. The more he writes, in fact, the clearer it becomes that it’s a body of work, an exploration of a series of interconnected ideas. A satisfying continuity for the reader as well, I suspect, for the artist. There are different worlds, but they aren’t unconnected. Even this alter-China is still full of these quiet notes that you could easily pass over unless you knew what to look for.

* *

“Beauty was not easily sustained in that time, nor music, nor anything that might be linked to grace or serenity. Not easily sustained at the best of times, those things. Sorrow lasts longer.”

Kay is definitely concerned with the ways in which people make a space for beauty and art. And the ways in which wars destroy culture. In Kay’s works poetry, music, art, are all so very fragile. the music in Tigana and the sculpture and even the towers, Crispin’s mosaics. The fountains and poetry in Al Rassan. It’s all so very, very fragile. And I wonder what it says about our own time. How do we make time for beauty, art, music, poetry?

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