Who lives, who dies, who tells your story

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story

While I was recently re-reading The Sarantine Mosaic by Guy Gavriel Kay I was also obsessively listening to the recording of Hamilton the musical. (Actually, I’m still obsessively listening to Hamilton.) But as I read I pondered how both works are concerned with the question of legacy. In Hamilton George Washington says, “You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” Kay seems to agree: the fragility of human works, the transience of art, and the unreliability of the narrative of history recur as a primary themes in many of his novels, but especially in the Sarantine Mosaic.

In Hamilton there are two voices competing to tell Hamilton’s story: Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s rival and killer, and Elizabeth (aka Eliza) Schuyler, Hamilton’s wife. While Burr introduces the play and acts as narrator throughout, Eliza’s voice breaks the fourth wall three times during the course of the play to examine her place in the narrative, and she finally gets the last word. She is the one who ultimately tells Hamilton’s story. (Hamilton also makes several bids in the course of the show to narrate his own story, but of course the problem is that he dies before the end of the show and so has no control over how the play ends.) Anyway, Eliza’s narrative demands that the audience look beyond Burr’s version of events to see Hamilton as a complex man with a lasting legacy, a tragic figure who perhaps achieves redemption when, after all, he does throw away his shot, refusing to kill Burr.

Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic likewise presents two characters who try to control narrative of history. They are the vengeful, poisonous historian Pertennius of Eubulus and the mosaicist (and the novels’ protagonist) Caius Crisipin. Pertennius and Crispin have two different visions of Valerius II and his empress Alixana. Pertennius, who is the official court historian, though employed not directly by the emperor but by the supreme Strategos, Leontes, hates the imperial couple and all their works. He calls Alixana a whore and accuses her of grotesque sexual exploits and infidelity. On the other hand Crispin admires both Alixana and Valerius very much, is almost envious of their deep love and communion. And, of course as it turns out in the end, Crispin is more than half in love with Alixana himself. And so by the end of the novel you have the mosaicist, Crispin, creating a new kind of mosaic mainly impelled by a desire to present an alternative narrative to Pertennius’. Crispin wants to tell the story of Sarantium in his own way.

Like Burr and Eliza, neither Pertennius nor Crispin is a mere bystander, both are active participants in the story they narrate. Each of them makes a major move which potentially changes the course of history. Pertennius actually wields the knife that kills Valerius while Crispin brings Gisel to the court which leads to Styliane’s ouster and Gisel’s ascent to the imperial throne. Although a closer parallel to Pertennius’ knife wielding might be the moment when Crispin delivers the knife from Gisel to Styliane, giving her the means to end her own life and bringing events to a full circle.

Forgive this incredibly long blog post. It’s really an extended essay, but there are two scenes that I want to look at more closely and really pull apart. The first is the scene where Crispin uncovers Pertennius’ papers, the second is the description of Crispin’s final mosaic in Varenna.

Uncovering Pertennius’ Perfidy

Pertennius’ unreliability as a narrator is already demonstrated in the first lines of the novel but the depths of his perfidy is uncovered by Crispin himself when at the end of one very long drunken night (the night of Kasia’s wedding) he accidentally reads some of Pertennius’ papers after Pertinnius has passed out. But Crispin never tells anyone else what Pertennius wrote. He counters the poison indirectly, not by denouncing Pertennius to the emperor and empress but by creating a work of art that tells a different story, that shows the imperial court to posterity in a different light.

Crispin’s reaction to Pertennius’ slander of Alixana is physical, visceral. It’s a shock.

“Crispin became aware that his own hands were shaking. He released the sheet of paper when it began to rattle in his grasp. He felt rage and fear and— beneath them both like a sounding drum— a growing horror. He thought he might be sick.” 

It’s easy to see why this is something that Crispin can’t just let go. It needs an answer as much as the zubir did. Like the zubir it is an intrusion into Crispin’s world, but where the zubir is numinous and otherworldly, Pertenniu’s hatred is merely evil, a human evil.

“there was a power to this exquisitely phrased viturperation, this venom, that caused him— almost without volition, as if he’d been rendered subject to to a dark spell— to leaf to another page.”

Both the zubir and Pertennius’ writing are compelling, there is something about them that Crispin cannot turn away from. They engage him and he can’t let them go.

“The unctuous, watchful, so-discreet secretary of the Strategos, this official chronicler of the wars of Valerius’s reign and his building projects, with his honored place in the Imperial Precinct, had been spewing forth in this room the accumulated filth and bile of hatred.”

What is particularly upsetting abut Pertennius’ writing is the privileged position he has in regards to the new imperial court. He is not only the official chronicler for Valerius, but the assumption Crispin must make is that he will continue to be the official historian for Leontes as well. He’s not just a historian, he’s the historian. That privileges his narrative in a way that Crispin can hardly challenge. Crispin has no hope of directly discrediting Pertennius. All he can hope for is to present a compelling alternate narrative in the hopes of setting the record straight indirectly, creating a work of art so beautiful it will outlive Pertennius’ bile.

“Crispin wondered if these words were ever meant to be read. And when? Would people believe them? Could they shape, in years to come, an impression of truth for those who had never actually known the people of whom these ugly words were written? Was it possible?”

Here I want to pause and think about this question of the unreliability of the historian and, finally, of all narrative, of all records. Kay develops this theme much more explicitly and extensively in his latest novels, Under Heaven and River of Stars; but here it is still fully realized. The narrative has already called Pertennius’ historicity into account in the very first paragraph of Sailing to Sarantium. He lies and says there was a thunderstorm when Apius died. Now, though, we see that Pertennius is not just unreliable, he’s downright vicious. Crispin is horrified at the realization that Pertennius’ words might become the accepted narrative. And this revulsion finally takes shape as a work of art. His response to the terror of the zubir is a mosaic and so is his response to the bile of Pertennius. He crafts an alternate narrative, hoping, trusting, that his vision might be more persuasive, that beauty will overcome hatred.

“He remembered Alixana in her rooms. A rose in gold on a table. The terrible impermanence of beauty. Everything transitory. Make me something that will last, she had said.

Mosaic: a striving after the eternal. He’d realized that she understood that. And had understood even then, that first night, that this woman would be with him always, in some way.”

The answer to Pertennius’ narrative occurs to Crispin almost immediately as he remembers his first encounter with the historian and the way he looked at Alixana. He then goes on to remember her golden rose which he saw on the same occasion, the symbol of transitory natural beauty made permanent by the artisan’s work and yet the work of art itself is fragile and unlikely to last. And that calls to mind her desire for a mosaic of dolphins which will last. Here, even though we have the example of the falling-down mosaic on the road in Sauradia and the destruction of the mosaic in the sanctuary of Jad, still there is in the art of mosaic an attempt to defy time, to grasp after permanence and eternity, at a type of immortality. Later in the same scene Crispin thinks about fleeing back home to Varenna and muses that it would be false comfort lacking “even the possibility of redemption that lay overhead here on the Sanctuary dome.” Interesting foreshadowing. If the sanctuary dome is Crispin’s hope for redemption, what happens to his hope when it is pulled down? And is he wrong about the lack of possibility for redemption in his native land? Does the mosaic of the imperial court in the novel’s final scene represent a different kind of redemption? A redemption for Alixana’s reputation at the very least, but perhaps also a redemption not only of the narrative but of the narrator?

Crisipin’s Sarantine Mosaic in Varenna

Crispin’s mosaic dramatizes the two competing visions of the imperial court: as both the envious historian and the admiring artist are depicted gazing at the Empress Alixana, the one’s eyes full of hatred, the other full of love. Neither man is unbiased, of course, each allows his emotions to color what he sees and how he portrays the court of Sarantium. But to the reader Crispin’s vision seems truer. Just as Eliza’s vision of Hamilton seems truer than Burr’s. Love always seems truer than hate, more intimate and more clear-eyed. Even though we know that the lover often overlooks the flaws in his beloved and exaggerates her good points. Even though love is depicted as blind. We still trust the lover more than the hater. We do want Eliza’s narrative to win out over Burr’s. And Kay seems to argue that art (and love?) can depict a truth that eludes history.

The tragedy, as Kay sees quite clearly in this and other novels, is that the artist has no control whether his art will survive and even if it does whether it will be understood. Even if it survives the iconoclasts, it may fall to the ravages of time. Even when a brilliant artist does his best, most astounding work his materials might fail him. And art is so fragile, so susceptible to war, and politics, and religion.

And yet the novel’s description of Crispin’s mosaic is full of hope (and Kay fulfills this promise with a glimpse in his later novel, The Last Light of the Sun where a character recounts having seen Crispin’s masterpiece). This mosaic is not an anonymous tribute, its purposeful naming and remembering makes it different than any other mosaic in the novel. It is something new, a challenge.

“And Crispin— their creator here, their lord— had set their names, in Sarantine, into the drapes and folds of their clothing, that those who came after might know: for naming, and so remembering, was at the heart of this for him.”

“Their creator here, their lord,” This peculiar phrasing sheds new light on the title of the novel. Here it is Crispin, the creator of the mosaic, who is lord of the characters he depicts, among whom are two emperors. Is he not then, in a secondary sense, also the Lord of Emperors? Not in the same way that Jad is when the emperor, according legend, hears the voice telling him to uncrown because the Lord of Emperors awaits, but in a lesser sense. Crispin controls the narrative. He tells the story. Without his art, who would remember these people, their faces and gestures? And so he is a master if not of the Emperor himself, then of his legacy, at least in part.

And Crispin also includes Pertennius in his portrayal, at first it seems like an odd choice. Why give place to the hateful man? Yet this is Crispin’s opportunity to unmask Pertennius’ hatred, to make a commentary on Pertennius’ gaze, on Pertennius’s interpretation of events:

“A thin, pale man was beside him (thinner and more pale with the craft of that proximity), sharp of feature, long of nose, watchful. An unsettling face, bitterness in his gaze as he looked toward the pair in the center. His name was written on a rolled parchment he held.”

Pertennius is clearly identified so that people in the far off future will know who he is. And his bitterness is clear to see, his face is meant to unsettle and that is perhaps enough of a response. But that is not Crispin’s only response for Crispin challenges Pertennius in another way. Crispin places himself in the picture— in Eliza’s words, he writes himself into the narrative— as a balancing figure, looking on the imperial figures with a different kind of gaze. (Curiously, Pertennius writes himself out of the narrative. His major act, stabbing the emperor, is not recounted in his history.)

To the very edge of the scene, strangely situated on the women’s side of the composition, stood another man, a little detached from the court lady nearest him. he might have been called an afterthought if precision of design had not shown so plainly here. Instead one might think him . . . out of place. But present. He was there. A big man, this one was, dressed entirely properly, though the garments draped a little awkwardly on his body. The anger than showed in him might perhaps have been caused by this.

He had red hair and was the only figure there shown with a beard, other than Zakarios, but this was not a holy man.

He was turned inward, looking toward the center like the scribe, staring at the Emperor or Empress (difficult to tell which). Indeed, it could be observed, upon study of the elements here, that the line of this man’s gaze was a balancing one, against that of the lean, thin-faced one on the other side of the panel, and that— perhaps— this was why he was where he was.

I love the detail of Crispin’s awkwardly draped garments in his self-portrait. He could, of course, have made himself handsome and perfectly dressed. Why is he awkward and out of place? I think it’s not just his need to remember and to tell the true story of his time in the imperial court as an outsider, one who is never quite at home there. There’s something more there, a commentary on the awkwardness of self portraiture, maybe? And maybe he is using the deliberate juxtaposition of awkwardness and precision of design to call attention to the balancing line of his gaze, to highlight that very element.

Interesting, too, that Crispin places himself “on the women’s side of the composition” and not among the men. The women in The Sarantine Mosaic are powerful, influential in the major events that shape Sarantium. And yet for the most part they exercise their power in an indirect way. Like Alixana balancing the power between the factions by ensuring that Shirin will remain with the Greens. Crispin, too, plays a not-minor role in Sarantine politics, not only in his mosaic work, but in the relationships he forges. This power he has of making connections is exemplified in the wedding of Kasia and Carrulus, which is attended by so many of the important people in the city and yet this importance is not so much of because of who the bride and groom are as because they are connected with Crispin and through him to Shirin of the Greens. Crisipin begins this influence in his first appearance at court, entangling himself with both Styliane and Alixana, because both are intrigued by his unconventional and confrontational presentation. Ultimately, Crispin is responsible for Gisel taking Styliane’s place as Empress of Sarantium, and perhaps for Styliane’s death and for Alixana’s continuing to live. He is responsible indirectly for Scortius’ injury and for his recovery. He stands at the turning point of so many events. And yet the way he moves is much more akin to the women than to the men. He does not hold office or have wealth, it is because of his ability to create relationships as much as his ability to create art that puts him in the heart of the action.

Why is Crispin angry? The narrator suggests it might be because of his ill-fitting clothes, a reminder of his first court appearance after his forcible bathing and shaving and clothing by the palace eunuchs. He’s angry because he’s out of place, far from home, out of place at court, forced to come off the scaffolding to deal with court intrigues. He’s angry about the death of his wife and daughters. And he’s also, perhaps, angry about the destruction of his greatest work, the mosaic in the sanctuary of Jad in Sarantium. Or maybe he’s mad at Pertennius, Leontes’s right hand man, whose poison pen has cruelly slandered Alixana. It is interesting, by the way, since I mention the shaving of his beard, that in this self-portrait Crispin restores the beard, distinguishing himself even more from the clean-shaven Sarantine men.

And his beard is also the one point of likeness he has with the cleric. Crispin is “not a holy man,” he’s not a terribly religious man at all. And yet… he’s not an unbeliever either. And there is something, I can’t quite put my finger on it yet, about the way Crispin interacts with religion in the novel that is being touched on here.

Crispin’s gaze is twofold here: “the line of this man’s gaze was a balancing one.” First, it is the gaze of the practiced artisan, who is able to balance a composition, whose judgement is trained to seek balance and harmony in the various elements of his design. Second, it is balanced because it corrects Pertinnius, provides a different kind of portrait of the imperial couple, a different way to read the narrative of their rule, a different sort of legacy.

Crispin can no more write a history that refutes Pertenius than Pertennius can make a mosaic. And he cannot control the story that Pertennius will tell about his mosaic in the sanctuary of Jad. No one can control his own legacy. As Hamilton says, “It’s planting seeds in a garden you don’t get to see.” All Crispin the artist can do is make the best work of art he can and hope that it is more compelling and enduring than Pertennius’s history. And the novel makes me want to believe that it’s enough.

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    • Oh do! I’m having so much fun pushing Dom to read all my favorite Kay novels. And then, of course I have to re-read them so they’re fresh in my mind to talk about with him. We just finished reading The Lions of Al-Rassan. But tonight I’m starting Kay’s newest novel, Children of Earth and Sky, which was just released today.