Sailing to Sarantium Prologue, a close reading

Sailing to Sarantium Prologue, a close reading

I’m re-reading Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay and I’ve decided to finally get around to a project I’ve been meaning to pursue for some time now: doing some close reading and blogging about my favorite bits of the book, inspired by the close readings of my friend Literacy Chic. This isn’t going to be a comprehensive project and may well peter off fairly quickly. I haven’t had much luck with ambitious blog projects. I tend to get bored and wander off to do something else. But even a few close reading posts will be fun to write and maybe fun for someone to read. I’m hoping I might inspire some conversations with other Kay lovers, maybe even inspire someone who has never read any Kay to give it a try. However, I’m writing these posts mainly for myself and I’m not going to necessarily refrain from spoilers. I’ll try to give warning before I give away plot points, but I make no promises. If you hate foreknowledge of books you haven’t read yet, stay away. You’ve been warned.

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In this close reading post I’m going to look at the Prologue, especially the first few paragraphs of the prologue.

The Prologue to StS is a fairly long section. It feels like a full chapter, especially as it’s divided into twelve, yes twelve, different subsections. One of the interesting features is the narration. The first section and the fourth, the eighth, and the twelfth seem to be narrated by an omniscient narrator who often sounds like a historian, putting events into a broader historical context, examining the roles of the historian and the ways stories are told and passed on. The other sections seem to be narrated by a third person limited narrator, each section focusing on a single point of view. These focuses repeat as Fotius, Plautus Bonosus, and Valerius each get two sections. I’m not positive that there really are two narrative voices, but there seem to be sections which have this meta-narrative awareness and others that don’t and those seem to be almost two different voices.

The narrative begins in the palace, jumps to the point of view of a lowly sandal maker, then to a senator, then to the historian persona for an interlude about the construction of balconies, then a strange section that is told in present tense that follows Petrus the nephew of Valerius who is engaged in a dalliance but also perhaps surveillance?. Then to a charioteer, then back to the sandalmaker, the senator, and finally to the new emperor Valerius. The Prologue does a lot of different narrative things, giving us both the high and the low, though the one commonality in all the sections is that all of the primary characters are engaged in political speculation or intrigue of one kind or another. Additionally, the Prologue introduces the mythology of Kay’s alternate universe as well as a first taste of the history and the personalities of his Constantinople analogue, Sarantium, which owes much to William Butler Yeats, with its Byzantine politics high and low cultures. And it introduces the “mosaic” technique of rapidly shifting points of view, here it’s all minor characters, but in the body of the novel the point of view shuttles between major and minor characters.

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First, let’s look closely at the opening paragraph:

Thunderstorms were common in Sarantium on midsummer nights, sufficiently so to make plausible the oft-repeated tale that the Emperor Apius passed to the god in the midst of a towering storm, with lightning flashing and rolls of thunder besieging the Holy City. Even Pertennius of Eubulus, writing only twenty years after, told the story this way, adding a statue of the Emperor toppling before the bronze gates to the Imperial Precinct and an oak tree split asunder just outside the landward walls. Writers of history often seek the dramatic over the truth. It is a failing of the profession.

I really love this first sentence. We open with a storm and the death of an emperor, plenty of action, and a bunch of mystery. Everything changes when the ruler dies. Now who’s next? How secure is the succession? Politics. This novel has lots of politics. I love that bit about the plausibility of the oft-repeated tale. Already the narrator is asking us to question the narrative. how trustworthy is the person telling the story? What stories do we believe and why? And there is a historian front and center, already we are jumping twenty years into the future to look at the event we’ve just encountered through the eyes of a historian who may or may not be a trustworthy narrator.

The second sentence gives us a curious shift. Suddenly we’re twenty years later, looking back and the first event from the perspective of what seems to be a famous historian, who it turns out later is maybe not quite so disinterested, a future historian who it seems would tell us a different version of the story than the one our narrator is going to tell us. But is our narrator in warning us about Pertennius of Eubulus also warning us about himself? Is he aware of this same tendency in his own work to seek the dramatic over the truthful? And is that why this book is a work of fantasy and not a historical text or even a historical novel? Fantasy gives the storyteller room to privilege the dramatic over the truthful, doesn’t it?

This first section of the prologue is voiced by a self-conscious, omniscient narrator, not limited in point of view. This voice has a sort of historian consciousness, reminiscent to me of the self-conscious style of narrative practiced by the Roman historian Livy. (There might have been earlier historians to practice this sort of narrative, but I’m not familiar with them. My freshman year class on Livy is where I encountered this self-conscious style of paying attention to the way history and myth are created and passed on.) This self conscious style is less obtrusive in the Sarantine novels than in Kay’s later works, it becomes much more of a feature in his alt-Chinese novels, Under Heaven and River of Stars. One of the things I really like about Kay is this constant probing and questioning of the very act of telling stories. One f my primary concerns in this re-reading will be this layer of meta-narrative when the novel asks the reader to think about storytelling, history, memory, and the role of the artist and of art in connecting us with the past. I know it’s the sort of thing that some readers hate, though. A few reviews I’ve read have seemed disgruntled by it.

Anyway,the narrator now seeks to reassure the reader that he’s a truthful narrator. The third paragraph begins with a nice, solid, “In fact.” We get a little foreshadowing, a hint of the geography of the greater world outside the city. And we get the complication: the succession is not secure. The three nephews of the apparently childless Emperor are out of the running.

Next– I really love this part– the bit about “the inward voice of the god saying to him alone ‘Uncrown, the Lord of Emperors awaits you now.'” The drama of the last judgment. An intimation that there is a power at work in this universe that is above the Emperor. This is another thing I love about Kay’s novels: the mythology. I really want to devote another blog post to investigating how Kay creates his analog triad of pseudo-monotheistic/pagan religions in this diptych (Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors) which also appear in The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Last Light of the Sun.

Then, finally, three men enter and we get some characters and some conversation, some action, and a brief outline of the political situation. At first it is not clear which of these three the narrative is most concerned with, but by the end of this first section it seems clear Valerius is our man. Valerius, the Count of the Excubitors, the Imperial Guard, who is not considered a key player, only included because of the need to preserve order; Valerius, whose first remarks about preserving order are thought to be “a shade emphatic.” Valerius, who, interestingly, remarks, “Be thankful there was no thunderstorm in the night.” Valerius, who is very concerned to conceal the intensities of his pounding heart, and who sends a messenger to inform his nephew, Petrus, that “the great game had begun.”

So the great game begins.

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And I think that will do it for now for my first close reading post, which I started writing back in November and then I got sidetracked onto other reading. There are quite a few threads here I’m eager to follow through the rest of the novel. Dom is way ahead of me, mostly through Lord of Emperors, and I’m looking forward to discussing the books with him as I read. Hopefully the next post on Sailing to Sarantium won’t take me another three months.

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  • There are a couple of spoilers in the following comments, so reader beware!

    I really enjoyed this analysis, and appreciate the thought you’ve put in to it! How refreshing to see Kay’s work get the kind of legitimate, intelligent literary analysis it really deserves!

    Your thoughts on the opening paragraph are spot on…love the idea that he is setting up the theme of an unreliable narrator that comes from a world full of varying perspectives (political, religious, cultural, or in some cases literally physical perspectives). The foreshadowing and theme building here is extreme; “major” history will be remembered based on the oft repeated story, but so will so many other things! Reputation, legacy, family narrative, religious belief, athletic achievement, perhaps even love…so many things in the tale flow from the narrative that preceded it or from the narrative that followed it (and the interpretations of that narrative).

    What’s fascinating here is that while clearly the treatment Pertennius gives to the narrative is (one would assume) almost universally frowned on in the end, I don’t think the narrator’s overall message is condemning of the concept of inserting personal flavor(?) into the narrative. Crispin’s personal insertions into his mosaic are necessary, and beautiful, even if they are, on the grand scale, entirely insignificant to the mosaic’s broad narrative. In fact, that personal flavor is what brings the piece to its glorious life. Similarly, the various viewpoints of the witnesses to the penultimate chariot race bring life and vitality to what, in a modern era, would have simply been a freeze frame photograph telling the “facts” of an epic athletic moment. The need for personal color in the narrative, in life, seems paramount, but also dangerous and potentially destructive.

    I’m fascinated to realize just how much of the depth of the story’s theme is laid down foundationaly in the opening few paragraphs. The idea that we must be open to recognizing the inherent malleability in a narrative is so interesting…just as Alixana’s golden rose represents the need to be willing to bend (lest we break), your analysis here indicates that in a similar fashion, the reader needs to be willing to question how much of the narrative is artistically “adjusted.” But in asking that question, we are then asked to recognize that the answer to the question really does not matter; the real significance of anything – a mosaic in a dusty, forgotten chapel, a verbal retelling of a witnessed moment in time, a metal bird lying forgotten in a wood, a recorded narrative of a fantasy story – comes down to our ability to bend with what we encounter and become something better (hopefully) because of those encounters. That the Lord of Emperors is the private judge of our “truth” is especially poignant here; none of us are equipped to understand (or judge) another’s actual truth; it is beyond the power of even an emperor to judge so completely.

    Fascinating stuff. I look forward to hopefully seeing more!

    • I’m thinking the personal touch inserted into the narrative is so important for the same reason Kay writes history-inspired fantasy and not historical fiction. Ethical historical fiction is limited in how it can approach the subject. It’s precisely those personal details which the historian cannot know and the author must embroider.

      I’m especially thinking here of Darwin Catholic’s excellent post about the Ethics of Historical Fiction: “Historical fiction has a fair amount of power. We often remember characters from books and movies better than we do anything we read in a history book. As such, it strikes me a problematic when historical events are treated as cultural short hand for some big idea rather than being portrayed in human terms.” and “And that, in the end, strikes me as the danger with knowingly inaccurate historical fiction, it runs the risk of obscuring from us the real human events and dramas that people experienced in the past. And when we don’t know what really happened in the past, in a certain sense, we no longer know who we are or how we got here.”

      It strikes me that Kay’s technique of creating a parallel fantasy world is a neat sidestepping of an ethical quagmire. But it’s more than that. Kay doesn’t really sidestep the question about the limits to a historian’s knowledge, instead he puts the question front and center in the text.

      I really haven’t read further than the first chapter so far in this re-reading and my previous reading is so long ago that I’m now hazy on the details. I look forward to coming back to your comment again when I’ve read further and can respond more sensitively to some of your other points which look at details further on in the text. Thank you so much for the very thoughtful comment.