Sunday, June 13, 2010

Under Heaven

Straightforward curiosity accounts for much of my interest in history. What happened? What really happened? What may have happened that we don't know about? Who was involved? What did they do? How did they react? What was it really like?

Another reason behind my attraction to history is my affinity for "story." Narratives grab me. I always want to know what happens next, how does the story continue?

At the juncture of these two passions (curiosity and narrative) is historical fiction and I have always enjoyed and learned from this genre. I know really passionate historians who disdain historical fiction. I believe there are many writers and readers of literary fiction who do not respect historical fiction. Some historians complain that  historical fiction presents "what-cannot-be-known" mixed with facts in ways that obscure or even deny the facts. The need for authors to sometimes distort time lines, blur details, blend real characters into fictional characters bothers historians. Readers of literary fiction, on the other hand, sometimes seem suspicious of the shaping of a narrative to accommodate historical events and characters. Perhaps they place a value on an author being able to create an entire world and not simply , in their view, place characters and action against an historic backdrop.

I am very comfortable with my appreciation for all three fields: history, historical fiction, and literary fiction. I am not exercised by those who for their own reasons don't fancy one, some, or any of these categories. I avoid disputes and arguments about them.

Now, however, I am challenged by another variant of history, or fiction, and I must come to terms with my feelings. Fantasy fiction has created narratives filled with adventure, conflict, characters that can transport the reader to worlds that seem more real than the one we live in. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings," for example, or J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" are phenomenal, of course, and  books like Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series  and anything by Neil Gaiman (I recommend American Gods) are among the best examples of what has become an entire section in bookstores.  I engage these books with relish and again, hold nothing against other readers who don't get the attraction of a mystical element driving story.

Now, HB has lent me a novel that seems to be an amalgam of fantasy narrative and historical fiction. Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay is actually the story of an important, well-known and fascinating period in China during the Tang Dynasty. The events presented include a famous rebellion, known as the An Lushan Rebellion, that resulted in perhaps the largest, most destructive war in human history until World War II. These events in the hands of a capable creator of fiction would create very satisfying and instructive narrative. This book, however, is not simply a fictional account of historical characters and events. In Under Heaven, Kay steps even further away from historical fiction by peopling his canvas with characters none of whom carry the exact identities of key historical figures and who are not assigned the names, the exact actions, or some of the known details of their lives. Even his geography is  created in a "fantasy fiction" mode, with maps and details that represent but don't depict the actual geographical details that are well-known. Finally, with mystical elements significantly incorporated into the narrative,  Kay takes creative history even further than conventional historical fiction can.

As I accepted the book, I worried that a book so removed from the facts of a period of Chinese history that I know well could prove dissatisfying or worse. You might guess, however, that as I began, I felt that the author was using a fresh approach to conveying real historical insights and understanding, even as he created a thrilling adventure with dynamic characters and much accurate detail. The emperor might have an assigned name, his concubine the same, the name of the capital might be changed and the supernatural comes to play, but the story is that of the aging Tang Dynasty emperor Xuanzong, his relationship with the beautiful courtesan Yang Guifei, and the fate of the empire as cultural, political and personal forces result in massive historical consequences.

The music and arts of the period are tightly woven into the story, as are the philosophy and mindset of the royalty, scholars, merchants, soldiers, and entertainers. One can read the history of all of this in great, and accurate detail, but reading this story brings these details to attention, and to life, in ways that breathe. One can read about the politics, sociology, and economics of this era elsewhere but by reading this story, the reader sees how these fields all come to bear and how individual lives reflected these dynamics. One can see ceramic horse sculptures from the Tang dynasty but in Under Heaven, one encounters the economic and military power of Sogdian horses and what it felt like to ride one. One can read real poems by real Tang Dynasty poets and come to appreciate their direct emotion and beauty. In Under Heaven, one will encounter fictional poets and fictional poetry that help make the reader feel how poets saw the world and how they expressed it to others.

This book reminded me of what this period of Chinese history has to offer us. I was inspired to review the actual history of the period. I realized how closely Kay actually follows real events even as he distances himself from "history." I am very impressed at his understanding of the period and he seems to resonate with the spirit of the times.  I read his afterword carefully to garner clues about why he is interested in this period of Chinese history and how he learned as much as he has. I also began to wonder how others who like history, or historical fiction, or both feel about this different approach. I can imagine the range of reactions I might get from historians and fictionistas.

Guy Gavriel Kay is apparently the author of other well-received books in the fantasy genre. I am interested in reading more of his work. I have resisted looking into his earlier work until I wrote this review so that I would not be distracted from my direct impressions of reading this, his latest, book just out in hardcover. I owe much to HB whose appreciation for history and fiction is broad and who anticipated that I might enjoy this book even as he cautioned that it took a different approach to storytelling but wasn't "too heavy" on the mystical stuff.

Recently, PYZ and I attended a piano recital by a graduating high-school student. Among the pieces he chose to play was Chopin's Polonaise-Fantaise. In his program notes, he explained that in this piece, Chopin combines the structure and formality of the traditional Polonaise dance with the freedom and creativity of a musical fantasy to create something entirely new to the musical world at the time. He said that from the moment he first heard the opening notes, he knew that he wanted to play this piece of music. It occurs that Kay's book has done something of the same thing for me and I look forward to learning what others think.


  1. Wow. It is a pleasure to read an analysis of Kay's books that makes me think that I am not the yahoo I am. The first of Kay's books are a truly dark triolgy, but then he moves into historical fantasy, dealing with Provence, Moorish Spain, and Byzantium. While I think I know history, his novels give one an insight that history books and historical fiction (in the classic genre) don't convey. Thanks, Gregory.

  2. Thank you Harvey and thank you again for this and the many books that you have introduced me to.