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The Carpet Makers cover

You might be tempted to feel sorry for the carpet makers of Yahannochia. By Imperial mandate, they spend their days weaving carpets for the palace of the Emperor—carpets woven from the hair of their wives and daughters. It's painstaking work, and it takes some time to finish one—the whole of a carpet maker's life, in fact. The trade is passed from father to son; when a carpet is finished, then whatever sum the carpet maker is able to negotiate with the hair carpet traders will represent his son's budget for the entirety of his carpet-weaving life.

These dedicated fellows, like everyone else in their village-based, caste-organised world, are in loving awe of the Emperor—an immortal, godlike figure whose portrait hangs in every house and around whom the whole of society is based. Carpet makers are venerated, respected ... and, thanks to the intergalactic revolution they've yet to hear about, shortly to be out of a job.

Told through the medium of numerous smaller, self-contained tales, The Carpet Makers is the story of a dead empire and a fledgling revolutionary leadership ... and the latter's attempts to exorcise the ghosts of the former, of which the existence of the carpet makers is but one. The Rebel Government have their work cut out in this regard. Formed only thirty years ago, they struggle against the weight of a hundred thousand years of history, during which the seemingly immortal emperor ruthlessly lodged the perception of his godhood deep into the psyche of his billions of subjects. Where necessary, rebel soldiers travel to planets still in the thrall of the Emperor, to spread the word of his overthrow. In the previously undiscovered galaxy of Gheera they discover the planet Yahannochia and scratch their heads over its bizarre, planet-wide industry—having stormed the Imperial Palace in proper revolutionary fashion, they can vouch for its lack of hair carpets. Their head-scratching turns to horrified speculation when they learn how long the Yahannochains have been in the hair-carpet game, and that Gheera contains more than a few planets with the same export. Where is this vast sea of carpets going?

Andreas Eschbach has been big news in Germany for some time, with some fourteen awards under his belt, including the SFCD award for Best Novel for this very book. An elegantly crafted tale, somewhat belatedly arrived on our shores (originally published in 1995, it is the first of Eschbach's seven novels), The Carpet Makers offers an irresistible central mystery gradually revealed by means of a highly original narrative structure. Orson Scott Card, who despite a pleasantly self-effacing introduction is the one we have to thank for the existence of this English translation, tells us this novel was not originally intended by its writer to go beyond the first chapter. It initially stood alone as a short story, a tone-setting seven-pager in which carpet-maker Ostvan's wife gives birth to a second son—an unfortunate development in a profession whose guild regulations forbid more than one male offspring, and one that therefore necessitates a bloody choice.

Pretty much every chapter is a self-contained story, a mini-tale which is both another piece of the picture puzzle, and a picture in its own right. Poetic, often tragic (The Carpet Makers is permeated with a finely-balanced melancholy), each chapter plays out the whole of a character's story whist giving us another tantalising clue to the over-arching mystery of the true purpose of the hair carpets. Heck, most of the chapters could have been published on their own. Although this approach is not without its drawbacks—it's an off-balancing sensation to find yourself reading a novel without a main character—it's a refreshingly unusual technique. Think The Immortals by James Gunn (maybe not a bad comparison, given the sometimes quaint style of The Carpet Makers).

So, we've got a compelling idea, and we've got an equally compelling narrative window through which to view it. We also, I'm pleased to report, have memorable characters, and this is perhaps the most surprising thing about the novel. Consider: each character gets one chapter (generally a brief one at that; The Carpet Makers is a short novel), with maybe a second, short appearance in the background of  a later chapter. This brevity would seem likely to equate to a limited knowledge of the character and, by extension, a limited concern for them. But the seemingly ephemeral meetings Eschbach arranges between his characters and his readers are carefully choreographed for maximum emotional connection, and the characters themselves so strongly motivated you can't help but get caught up in their tales. Take Borlon, an average working Yahannochian, halfway through his life and, therefore, halfway through his carpet. Career-wise he's left in something of a quandary when his house, carpet and all, burns to the ground. There's not enough years left to start another one, and not many transferable skills from hair carpet making he can wield in Yahannochia's rather limited job-market. Like most of the characters, his situation is typified by helplessness—power, or the lack of it, is a central theme here—and although watching things fall apart for Borlon isn't a barrel of laughs, it's compelling in the way good tragedy can be. (Also look out for the chapter entitled "I'll See You Again"—a little gem with a hell of a sting in its tail that I intend to read again on its own.)

There's no such thing as The Perfect Writer, however, and Eschbach is no exception. We come now to his use of language, a subject I approach warily, since The Carpet Makers is a translation and I've no wish to criticise the writer for problems arising from that fact rather than from his pen. Eschbach eschews florid, elaborate prose in favour of simple language, which is not of course a problem in itself, even if I did find myself scanning the back cover after a few chapters for any indication I was reading a children's book. Philip K. Dick used simple language, and quite a few of us enjoyed his output. Where Eschbach's prose misfires somewhat is when its simplicity, which elsewhere equates to clarity, simply becomes ploddingly basic. Even allowing for translation issues, and for the fact that Eschbach clearly couldn't give a Frankfurter for complex science, its still hard not to take affront at lines like this: "With a signal that sounded metallic, Space Traffic Control sent the alert that a new blip had appeared on the screen" (p. 206). (We could be generous here, I suppose, and cite this as another example of the above-mentioned quaintness.) Descriptive duds also crop up in the form of speech attribution, with characters routinely growling, hissing and in extreme cases screaming their dialogue. Yet another problem is that it's only after several chapters that you realise Eschbach isn't going to give you a main character, or a central narrative, and that the half-dozen or so characters you've committed to memory are pretty much out of the picture. Whilst you're hastily recalibrating your reader-expectations, it's hard not to wish Eschbach had somehow made his intentions clearer from the outset.

Nonetheless, it would be a shame to miss this book. Perhaps the best recommendation I can give for it is that I'd be willing to bet a chunk of change you won't have read anything quite like it before.

Finn Dempster lives in Bristol, England. He is usually to be found in his local library, pub, or bookstore, and will get around to doing a PhD one of these days.

Finn Dempster lives and works in Bristol, although he enjoyed a temporary relocation to Bath where he earned his BA (Hons) in English Literature. When not inconvenienced by his duties as an office support administrator, he writes for local publications including the Bristol Review of Books and The Spark. Well -written science fiction is one of his top five favorite things.
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