Carpet Makers, The by Eschbach, Andreas, trans. by Doryl Jensen, 2006

Carpet Makers, The by Eschbach, Andreas, trans. by Doryl Jensen - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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Many, many years ago, when I was but a relatively recent graduate, having but two or three years under my belt, and still full of hope for my fellow man, I encountered a story in the January, 2001 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction called The Capetmaker's Son. At that point in my life I was really starting to get into SF again, after a several year hiatus that coincided with my education. During my (long) schooling, I kept up with my favorite literature only by reading short stories; tales that I could get into and finish easily enough, with a minimum of time-drain. By 2001 I was starting to get back into full length novels, when I could. The only kind of learning I had to do was on-the-job-training, but law firm life absolutely dominated my time. I kept my subscriptions up even though by that time I had pretty much given up on the short story medium as a viable way to tell SF stories - in my opinion modern short fiction just cannot hold a candle to the old stuff. I eventually let the subscriptions that I had lapse in 2004, but even by 2001 the only stories I was reading were those by Robert Reed, Tony Daniel, Michael Swanwick and a few select other authors. Then along came Andreas Eschbach's The Carpetmaker's Son and it was literally love at first read. I don't remember ever being moved more by a short story. It was obvious from The Carpetmaker's Son that Eschbach had a lot more to say about this world. Gordon van Gelder's introduction to this story ended with these words:

This story, originally published in 1985, went on to form part of (Eschbach's) first novel, Die Haarteppichknupfer, (The Hair Carpet Makers), which was published in 1995. As yet, there are no US editions of his books.

So I quietly waited. Though eventually, of course, I forgot to keep my eye open. It's not that I ever forgot this story. Every once in a while I would see an exotic carpet or meet somebody named Andrea or something like that and flash back to this story. Even though the tale never left my head, I forgot to keep looking for an English version of that novel with the weird title. Then one day about a year ago I stumbled across a book in a used book shop here in Sacramento, or possibly Seattle, where I hang out quite a bit, called The Carpet Makers, by Andreas Eschbach. It was 2008, and I had long forgotten what the author's name was, but I instinctively bought the book without even reading the jacket. In fact, I read the blurb when I got home and it was not too helpful. So I stuck the book into my stack - that enormous, life-threatening pile of books that I hope to finish before I die - and again forgot all about it. Well, letís just say that I have been reading my ass off in the last year, because I finally got down to it. I picked it up and within five words I knew that I had my book. Just to be sure I looked the author up on the ISFDB, found out when he published in the MoF&SF, and went out to my garage in the middle of the night in my underwear and pulled that issue out of the moldy stacks. Sure enough, this is it. I'm reunited, and yes, it feels so good!

At this point that you are probably wondering if the novel was worth all the trouble. In fact, it was. But maybe because I am a bit older, wiser, stupider, slower, astute, whatever, it did not ring with the same frequency the story did. Its good, but it's not the transformational, life altering thing it was eight-and-a-half years ago. The Carpet Makers is the tale of a culture of artisans who lived in a remote galaxy, forgotten by all, but still dedicated in life in spirit to "the Emperor," who for all they know had been deposed. To be perfectly blunt, it's not even a traditional story. It's one of those books told in a mosaic style where there are so many characters, that there are no main characters; know what I mean? Eschbach told the story through multiple viewpoints, switching to a new (or almost new) character in each chapter. The story was essentially a mystery: What happened to these people, why did it seem that they had been abandoned by galactic culture, and who was in charge back in the empire? The mystery was treated by Eschbach almost like it was a solid object, passed from one character to another after the first had done something to advance the story; to provide some clue. The result, which could have been an absolute mess, was smooth, readable and fascinating. Eschbach saw to the narrative well enough, and even though no one character was on the stage too long, the reader still got a good feel for everyone who passed by. As I read the book I did have a difficult time making connections with the characters. At first I asked myself "if this continues will I care how it all ends?" but of course I did. It took a bit but once I figured out that the people in the book was really nothing more than avatars for the culture or the planet that they came from, and that the real characters of any consequence were the various societies themselves, most of those disconnections found purchase.

The Carpet Makers is the story of the people of a city called Yahannachia, on a distant planet in a forgotten galaxy. These people lived in relative squalor; there was not too much going on in the city, and nothing would grow in the desert around it. The population lived in castes, with the makers of fine carpets at the top caste. Those men - only men - who made carpets, wove them out of the hair of their daughters and their multiple wives. The process was excruciatingly detailed, and some days they only moved forward a tiny bit.

Knot after knot, day in, day out, for an entire lifetime, always the same hand movements, always looping the same knots in the fine hair, so fine and so tiny that with time, the fingers trembled and the eyes became weak from strain - and still the progress was hardly noticeable. On a day he made good headway, there was a new piece of his carpet as big as his fingernail. So he squatted before the creaking carpet frame where his father and his father before him had sat, each with the same stooped posture and with the old, flimsy magnifying lens before his eyes, his arms propped against the worn breast-board, moving the knotting needle only with the tips of his fingers. Thus he tied knot upon knot as it has been passed down to him for generations until he slipped into a trance in which he felt whole; his back ceased to hurt and he no longer felt the age of his bones.

All this was done as homage to the emperor. Once per year a carpet-buyer would pass through the city to purchase all the carpets that had been completed and ready to go to the Emperor. Those that were done were presented and haggled over in a Thanksgiving-like ceremony. When sold the entire purchase price was given over to ones own son to "pay off the debt that a man owes his child." The carpet maker then retired, and waited for death, while the young son accepted the money from his father's sale - the only money he would ever earn - then found a wife and started his own family. If he was lucky he would produce but one son, as male children that came later had to be killed out of economic necessity. If he was luckier he would have many daughters, each with a different color of hair so that the young man did not have to dye any hair before weaving it into his carpet. The boy worked on his one carpet until he too was an old man, then repeated the entire cycle.

And so it had gone on this planet for over one hundred thousand years. The people of this planet, all of whom were engaged in some way in the production of hair carpets, believed that they were the only ones who did so. They believed that every other planet out there had dedicated themselves to the production of some other luxury for the Imperial Castle. As it turned out, the people of the other galaxies had forgotten that this galaxy even existed. The Imperium had altered maps millennia ago so that nobody would remember them, and within that galaxy there were more than ten thousand planets doing nothing other than making hair carpets. Once the Empire was overthrown and the immortal Emperor was executed, the new government discovered the hair carpet producing planets and worked to solve the mystery. Eschbach gives you the reason in the end of the book. It was sublimely twisted, and I will not reveal any more.

One thing I have been thinking about doing on my book review website is tagging all books with tags such as "Heinleinian," or "Asimovian," to indicate stories and books whose authors were influenced by those authors. If I ever get around to that task, I think that I am going to have to add Ursula K. LeGuin to that list. I found the entire book reminiscent of something that she could have written. For example, one observation that I have had about LeGuin in the past is that even though her books are full of passion the narratives are sometimes detached and slightly cold. I do not mean that in the pejorative sense at all; itís just how she writes. Eschbach's book had the exact same feeling about it, and when you remember that some of the strongest themes and motifs that he used in The Carpet Makers were anthropological in nature, you may agree that this book is in fact "LeGuinian."

The book is widely available now, and is probably one of the best books of this decade.

Copyright © 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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