At 49, Ricardo Pinto comes across as simultaneously youthful and professorial. These qualities temper each other, making him both an engaging conversationalist and a passionate arguer of his worldview. But nowhere is he more passionate than in his epic Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy, the final volume of which, The Third God, will be published in paperback this March by Transworld.
Pinto and his long-time partner moved from Edinburgh's New Town to the Scottish countryside in 2007, and their house sees frequent visits from friends and their families: "People love it here," he said. "One night we walked under the full moon with a couple of our friends, across the road to the small loch there. We sat on a jetty gazing at the perfect reflection of the trees around the shore, while two glowing, luminous swans drifted past—like a fairytale, really, or a vision. . . ."
Being surrounded by nature allows Pinto to get in touch with the soil, to literally ground himself. He confesses to missing the proximity of other people, but has grown very fond of his new surroundings, particularly since he installed his bookshelves: "My books had been in boxes since we moved, but now I feel much more at home."
Like his bookshelves and walls, Pinto's mind is filled with the stuff of a wider and older world, from photographs of Assyrian sculpture—his latest love—to books on the Ancient Egyptian history that inspired a lifelong obsession with the unfolding story of human civilization and conflict.
We settle in his spacious study, where a strange yet striking painting overlooks his desk. It depicts a grotesque man holding a mask of classical beauty, its features smooth and symmetrical. Pinto tells me that the painting, done by a friend, struck a chord with him. "Most people seem to find it disturbing, but I find it, if not comforting, neutral; a representation of how things are." He grins wryly. "It could, of course, be like Dorian Gray's portrait, where the turmoil inside me is visible not in my face, but in the painting."
The turmoil to which Pinto refers is central to a full understanding of his work. It stems from his emigration, when he was six, from Portugal to the UK, where the Pintos' family life was distorted by prejudice.
"My parents came over here with a lot of emotional baggage because they both had very difficult childhoods, and a lot of demons made their way down to me through the generations. My mother's mother died soon after giving birth to her. Her father disappeared, and it fell to an elder sister to raise her and their other siblings. My paternal grandfather fought in the trenches in the First World War. As a seventeen-year-old he was transported from a rural idyll to a place where he was treading on the faces of the dead as he fled the artillery."
War stories such as these resonate everywhere in Pinto's work, especially in the graphically described brutality of the ruling class, the Chosen. Sartlar slaves die in the millions: burnt, crushed to a pulp, or worked to death and made into render—that is, liquid meat rations for their masters' armies. Denied freedom, individuality, and humanity, the Sartlar are the story's ultimate underdogs, and Pinto firmly attributes the books' bloodily expressed outrage to his family history and childhood.
He's reluctant to say much more about his parents' early lives, but revealingly characterizes their emigration as an "exile." This emphasizes the parallel between Pinto and his protagonist Carnelian, a youth whose idyllic childhood on a remote island comes to an end when his father is called home to the city-state of Osrakum to supervise the election of the next God Emperor. There, in the Guarded Land of the Chosen, Carnelian discovers a corrupt, decadent world that makes Imperial Rome pale in comparison.
"I couldn't easily untangle the emigration from my emotional life as a child—it was all swirling around in the one bucket," Pinto says. "We didn't know any other immigrants or have many friends locally, so we were very isolated. Initially, school wasn't so bad. I was seen as exotic and bright, and primary school kids were quite open. But soon they began to close up. I started to hone my defenses, and it became a kind of arms race."
The UK, and especially Scotland where Pinto grew up, was considerably different at that time: "Racism was endemic and people here were profoundly ignorant about the outside world," he says. "My mother is quite dark, and people called us 'Pakis.' I don't imagine emigration is ever easy, but if the parents are struggling to cope with it, it is a deeply disturbing time for the children. It has left me with a sort of siege mentality."
Pinto's early sense of dislocation and anger grew as, reaching puberty in 1970s Scotland, he encountered not only racism but also homophobia. Homosexuality was still a criminal offence in Scotland, and popular culture represented gay men only in stereotypes of high camp or tragedy. For a youth in search of support and encouragement, there were no real role models. Pinto explains that, at its most personal level, The Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy has been a means of coming to terms with the pain of his early life.
"In writing my books I effectively returned to my childhood," he says. "The notion of Eden being left behind is common across the world—the passing of the Golden Age—for the very reason that one is leaving the Eden of childhood. In Portugal, I grew up in a modernist house a few minutes' walk from the sea, with a forest on one side and a meadow on the other. It was full of sun and insects buzzing. For a long time I was only aware of the light, but the darkness that ultimately pushed us into exile was also building."
The loss of Carnelian's Eden is both a literal displacement and a moral one as, rejecting the privilege of the Chosen to ally with the downtrodden, he finds an ethical quandary as old as politics: can he survive and wield his influence for good, without compromising the people he is trying to help? Carnelian's dilemma is intentionally a familiar one, and the relationship of the Chosen to the rest of their world is that of the West to the developing world: like the Chosen, Westerners are largely unwilling to face the true cost of the comfort and plenty in which we live.
"Consider a civilization that lives behind an impenetrable wall, living in unbounded privilege funded by the rape of the world beyond that wall—a wall that also prevents the privileged having to see that world's suffering. That is how the West relates to the Third World—in The Stone Dance I have just mythologized that relationship," he says.
Pinto's message may be a worthy one, but his readers' willingness to believe in it is due not just to the appeal of his humanitarian ideology, but also to the solidity of his world. He built the world of the Three Lands with a historian's eye for context, and his rigorous training as a mathematician is evident in his quest for precision and accuracy: Pinto consulted experts in geology and linguistics to ensure that his world would stand up to the most minute scrutiny, from the constructed language of Quya to the world's climate.
"In writing The Stone Dance I went for total 'immersion.' I want my readers to feel that this place and these people are real. For that reason, I had to make sure that everything worked," he explains.
Comparisons of Pinto's trilogy with the works of Tolkien are justified, and there are also echoes of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast in the tradition-stultified grandeur inhabited by the Chosen. But the trilogy's social commentary reveals less common ground with these godfathers of British twentieth century fantasy than with the left wing politics of China Miéville, Iain Banks, and Clive Barker. Pinto is concerned, however, that the trilogy's setting obscures its message for some readers.
"People have tried to characterize it as Egyptian mixed with Aztec, or Roman with Chinese, but in fact I'm trying to undermine this kind of pigeonholing," he says. "The Stone Dance is a social critique. It holds up a mirror to our civilization. It is about how people grow power structures, out of their families and their childhoods, and then impose those patterns on the world and on other people as compensation for their own inadequacies."
Overcompensating or not, the Chosen have created their utopia by turning the world into a dystopia for those they exploit.
"Utopias and dystopias—and the boundary between them—have exerted a fascination on me for so long—since I was a child—that I'm barely aware of them as categories," he says. "They are a fundamental part of the world I live in. After all, what is any society, any group of people, any family, but a dystopia and a utopia? They bleed into each other, an emotional landscape upon which the sun shines, but over which sometimes dark clouds cast their shadow."
I point out that his portrayal of Chosen society at a tipping point is being published as our own society reels from the end of the last decade's economic boom. He agrees, but says that "the tipping point I had in mind was that of global warming, the destruction of eco-systems, and the human population explosion. And, I suppose, the recent economic collapse is a part of that; so, yes—it is significant."
Does the world seem a better or a worse place to Pinto since he began the trilogy?
"It's both better and worse," he says. "Although it is within our power to eliminate poverty, for example, I'm not so sure that we have it in us to avoid the most terrible consequences of global warming. I feel that, because there is always hope that a human being can be talked around—talked off a ledge, talked into putting down his gun—too many of us treat our planet as if it was amenable to such persuasion. It isn't: it's not human, and it's implacable."
The trilogy's concerns reflect the various forms of unrest across the globe that happened during its long genesis. The first draft, written when Pinto was a student, coincided with global reactions against Apartheid. He also cites the significance of "the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and the legacy of World War II and the gas chambers" in the trilogy's development.
"Can a book be written which does not, in some way, reflect its times?" he asks.
Between the unflinchingly violent depiction of human suffering in the books and Pinto's refusal to offer cozy moral escapism, the Three Lands represent harsher territory than that traversed by many popular fantasy authors. I ask Pinto if he believes that the general public still underestimates the genre, despite the past decade's wealth of crossover hits with mainstream marketing but clear debts to the speculative tradition. Have such preconceptions separated the trilogy from a segment of its potential audience?
"It's more insidious than that," he says. "Because of the way the books are marketed there are a lot of people out there who are convinced, without recourse to experience, that they wouldn't like it because it is fantasy, and they don't like fantasy. Now, if the reason they don't like fantasy is because 'it's full of goblins and elves,' then there is much fantasy fiction that does not have those in it. If they don't like fantasy because it has magic in it, and they want to read about reality, then there is fantasy fiction that doesn't have magic in it. So what I am irritated by is the catch-all nature of these genre categories that have everything to do with commerce—which shelf it goes on in the bookshop—and nothing whatsoever to do with the content of the books."
But the reverse is also true, as a significant proportion of fantasy readers are disdainful of both other genres and literary fiction, preferring their fantasy to stay within reassuringly familiar boundaries. In this context, the failure of Pinto's publisher to distinguish his work visually from the many simplistic, escapist fantasy trilogies on the market has created a no-win situation. The Stone Dance's marketing thus entices the very readership to whom it is least likely to appeal, while simultaneously alienating the seekers of complex, meaningful fantasy to whom it could become iconic. Instead, within both fantasy fandom and the wider literary spectrum, The Stone Dance of the Chameleon still lacks the name recognition factor that it deserves.
"Part of me bristles at the thought of being categorized, within this genre or another, but it's hard to take this kind of position without other genre authors and readers feeling that they are being somehow dismissed, as if what I'm saying is that I don't want to be with them, but with those 'other' people," Pinto says. "What I really don't want is to have a barrier put up between me and my potential readers that is not of their or my making, and I don't want to be constrained in what I am allowed to write."
In the early days of Pinto's literary career, the constraint of most concern to Pinto was the possibility that, because the books' central romantic relationship is between two men, critics and readers might dismiss the trilogy as appealing only to gay readers. Carnelian falls in love with another young Chosen lord, who holds vigorously to the perceived right of their people to cruelly dominate others.
Carnelian's early, naïve conviction that he can change his lover for the better, his gradual realization of his own complicity in others' suffering, and his efforts to sabotage the machinations of the man he still loves provide the trilogy with a great deal of its tension. In interviews given when The Standing Dead was published in 2003, Pinto appeared to downplay Carnelian's choice of partner as the result of male partners being more available than females in Chosen culture, rather than of innate orientation.
"I think what I said then shows that I was feeling more defensive than I am now. However, I am still not comfortable with the label," he explains. "For one thing, historically, the sexual boundaries were differently drawn—in Ancient Greece, for example, the distinction was made not on the basis of who you slept with, but whether you were active or passive. I react strongly against the imposing of a contemporary, cultural distinction on a place that is, in so many ways, different. Even more fundamentally, what is the point of discussing the gay issue unless it is directly relevant to the books? The gender of my characters and who they choose for lovers is not as pertinent as the fact that they love, and that their love has an effect on the world."
Pinto remains cautious on several counts as he selects his next project from the many ideas he accumulated while working on the trilogy.
"It's hard to decide. Not only because I want to make sure that it is what I really should be doing, but also because of the constraints of the book market, which doesn't like people moving from one ghetto to another," he says. "There are definitely movement restrictions imposed on novelists. I have expended a lot of energy getting frustrated by genre limitations and feel they're all to do with the external form; with books as objects, and, most importantly, with books as commodities."
Asked what might answer the need of novelists for more fluid genre identities, he states that one of them could well be technology.
"Amazon's virtual shelves can have any number of books next to each other, and an e-book could have a hundred different covers, or none," he says. "What is perhaps more fundamental is that authors have to find a way to reach out to readers, who are themselves reaching out, so that we can connect without the mediation of commerce."
I remark that many people in creative industries are worried about Internet piracy, and that some authors are concerned e-books will facilitate the violation of their copyright.
"Every new thing, every turn of events, is naturally approached with hope and fear," he answers. "A new form of copyright is desperately needed. Essentially, all anyone is trying to do—anyone who is actually involved, the authors and the readers—is to find a way that writers can write and readers can read. It should not be beyond our ingenuity to find a way to make this happen. Of course, the pain comes in making the transition to this new world."
And with that, Pinto sums up the central paradox of his life and work: that the height of his creativity has not only been an attempt to build a new world, but also to make sense of the old one and the pain that comes with living in it. After over a decade of labour, the success of The Stone Dance of the Chameleon can only rejuvenate and inspire him as he decides which worlds to shake up next.
Ricardo Pinto's Web site can be found here.
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