Milan during the time of Bishop Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius in 394 AD was the new centre of the Roman Empire, a cosmopolitan city home to Christian and pagan alike–the perfect setting for demon hunt.
A young girl and an elderly priest are found dead in their beds under similar circumstances, after a night of restless nightmares. Meanwhile, pagans are brought outside the city walls to be burned at the stake, since the new laws proclaimed by Theodosius make worship of the old gods a crime punishable by death. Milan is undergoing a violent transition from the classical world into the Christian Middle Ages. Embodying that transition in many ways is the hero of this novel by Italian author Giovanni Anastasi.
Aurelius Severian is an ex-Roman soldier turned priest who has now given up both professions to hunt the invisible, incorporeal agents of the devil. His calm, silent demeanor and larger-than-life capability make him a force to contend with. Like his namesake Marcus Aurelius, he is a stoic, perhaps as way to cope with his tortured past. We perceive Severian mostly through the lens of his servant Flavian, a pagan slave boy he saves from the stake. As Christian and pagan, they distrust each other at first, but circumstances force them to adopt a necessary partnership.
Severian and Flavian must race against time to examine the corpse of the slain girl and find out who killed her and why. Meanwhile, a mysterious sorcerer works black magic while watching their every move, calling on the name of the Lady of the Night Gates, the demon whose statue Severian discovers under the girl’s bed.
I was pleasantly surprised by Demon Hunter Severian. It’s a horror mystery/historical fantasy romp through late classical Milan. There were a few typos and some similes and descriptions that didn’t quite work for me, however. The novel at times follows a standard formula for historical action thrillers–I won’t point out what that formula is exactly, but some scenes follow the script gesture by gesture. Which isn’t to say the story didn’t work. It was a fun ride and left me satisfied at the end.
Demon Hunter Severian has the potential of developing into a series revolving around its central character, and if it does, it would be interesting to see whether the secondary characters introduced in this first novel develop any further. The novel’s setting is unconventional, capturing a curious moment in Italian history where pagan and Christian could still live side by side, even though the pagans were starting to be hunted down for their religious differences. It’s a situation of religious intolerance mixed with politics that speaks a lot to the world of today, especially in the Middle East. What I liked about Anastasi’s treatment of good and evil is that neither side is given moral superiority–there are Christians who act good and bad just as there are pagans who act good and bad. These shades of grey enable the novel to pay respect to the hybridity of Milanese culture at the time.
I think Acheron’s mission to publish Italian fantasy and speculative fiction for the English-speaking public is a fine one. Italy has so much history, so many ancient ruins, and so many old, forgotten cities buried underneath the modern ones that the fantastic literature emerging from such its landscape is guaranteed to be rich.
Adriano Barone, the head editor, told me by email, “With Acheron we want to fill a gap we think exists in the fantasy world, that is, Italian settings and Italian folklore. Italy is renowned for its history and art … we think this fascination can extend to speculative fiction too.”
At the Northeast MLA Conference last weekend in Toronto, which I attended, there was a panel in Italian on fantastic literature. This leaves me with the impression that Italian fantastic literature is making inroads at a time when it stands to build bridges between cultures and languages.
Acheron Books is an online ebook publisher of Italian fantasy and speculative fiction authors in English–“Your ferry to the Other Worlds” is their slogan. Giovanni Anastasi is the pen name of Luca Tarenzi, author of two previous novels When the Devil Strokes You and Godbreaker. He won the Premio Italia Fantasy and SF Literature Prize in 2012. The text has been translated from the original Italian by Nigel J. Ross.
Every once in a while, two events in your life happen simultaneously and in their juxtaposition, a humorous situation appears in your imagination. I had just finished reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry and started a job as a salesman. Anyone familiar with the myth of King Arthur, especially as retold by Kay, and the cliches of the sales pitch will find the following short story’s concept amusing.
“We’ll sell you a High King, and if he is ever damaged or killed in battle, just send him back to Avalon, and we’ll return him. That’s our eternal guarantee.”
Morgan le Fay of Camlann Marketing, the sales branch of Avalon Enterprises, smiled with her pearl teeth at the customer, a prophet with a white beard by the name of Merlynn. They were sitting at a stone table in the middle of her grove, while she spun her webs and charms.
“I see,” said Merlynn, arching his eyebrows. “And when would that be?”
“There will be a prophecy in the end. He’ll wait on the island for when he is needed once again. Now,” she said, opening her illuminated codex. “Let me show you the wide variety of saviours Avalon Enterprises has in its collection of Worthies.”
Merlynn nodded and pressed his forefinger above his eye, to furrow his brow. Morgan le Fay was always troublesome, but when she’d asked for him to listen to her presentation, for the sake of the nation he could not have refused. Uther was dead and Wales needed a king. He listened to her litany of saviours, as she pointed to a picture of a warrior in bronze armour.
“Hector of Troy,” she said. “Customers like him, because he is strong, agile, and versatile for mostly every occasion. However, he is not stronger than Achilles. He’s perfect as a strongman, but his temper makes him poor for politics, which means you might want King David. He killed the giant Goliath with a slingshot when he was only a young man, and thereafter ruled as a great king. However, he was not resistant to the sin of adultery with Bathsheba, which means you might need Godfrey of Bouillon. A French crusader sworn to the ideals of chivalry, he took Jerusalem from the Saracens and ruled as king, although he refused the title. However, though a virtuous knight, he was not the ruler of a kingdom that endured, which means you might need Frederick Barbarossa …”
“The German makes are never quite as good,” said Merlynn, shaking his head sadly. “And I don’t see this country moving in that direction.”
“That’s all right,” said Morgan le Fay, lending him another pearl smile. “Besides, maybe what this land needs is another sort of king. Not an Alexander the Great, but perhaps a Christ, a Buddha, or a Gandhi?”
“Gandhi?” asked Merlynn. He closed his eyes and focused on the name. Threads of time, centuries of civilization, wove themselves through his synapses and he tasted the future. “Not the violent type of man, I see. But it’s my impression that all these saviours have some fatal defect or another. Either that, or they die a martyr.”
“There is always a price,” said Morgan le Fay, sounding concerned. “But if the weight of that knowledge sounds like too much at once, you can make three equal payments. And if you find you don’t like him, you can return him during our free-trial period.”
“A free hero does not sound like much of one,” said Merlynn, folding his arms. “But what about the payments?”
“Your saviour will endure an even amount of grief over his or her lifetime,” she said. “You might be interested in Hercules, perhaps: that’s a twelve payment plan.”
Merlynn sighed with such a deep longing that he could not encompass just how much he wished for the world to be different. But the earth was still there, in so much need. “You know … I don’t think Wales can pay such a hefty price for a saviour. In this age, after all, who needs a hero who causes so much more grief? Sure, these heroes legends, but I really don’t think Wales is ready for this investment.”
Morgan le Fay nodded and smiled. “That’s why we have our free-trial period. If you are in any way dissatisfied, we can return your hero to Avalon for a full refund.”
Merlynn cursed himself for a fool. He wanted heroes to lead Wales as they had in the days of old, but time had moved on and the every year brought a steeper decline in glory. He supposed it was simply not possible in this age, for heroes to be born the way they used to be. Ever since the goddesses had formed Avalon, their corporate machine had experienced unprecedented successes, selling high-quality heroes to lands bereft of them. This was the way of the future, and the past was done.
He grumbled from behind his white beard, a throaty old-man sound. When had he gotten so old?
“Him,” he said, pointing to an illumination in Morgan le Fay’s codex. A golden crown rested heavily on a man’s bearded head, a silver sword sheathed by his side and a red-tipped spear in his hand.
“That is the dux bellorum, lord of battles,” said Morgan le Fay. “He is expensive, but it’s worth it, because he comes with Caliburn, his famous sword, Ron, his great spear, and a host of eight other gallant knights. Is this who you want?”
“I’m on the verge,” said Merlynn, nodding, and trying not to think of the cost. “But I cannot justify saturating this world with so many heroes. There could be glory in it, but evil as well.”
Morgan le Fay squeezed her lip together. “I can give you a deal. If you agree to rid the world of one or two of your more common heroes, I can give you the Knights of the Round Table—which, by the way, includes the world’s greatest knight, Lancelot du Lac.”
Merlynn wondered what her game was, but there was no doubting that she was giving him an excellent deal. He thought he would surely weep later, if he passed up the chance for such a bargain.
He smiled. The promise of future glory, the shortcut history could take towards remaking the social cohesion of the pax romana, was too tempting. It was an investment in the future. He owed his decision to succeeding generations.
“He will be called Arthur Pendragon,” he said, and signed by Avalon’s wax seal.
“Tigana, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul.”
-Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana
Alessan’s mantra for his beleaguered nation, erased from history by the tyrant sorcerer Brandin of Ygrath, forms a central node in the theme of exile and memory in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana. A novel set in the Peninsula of the Palm, a landmass that more or less corresponds to Italy, Tigana borrows much of its inspiration from the Italian Renaissance era of warring city-states.
Brandin’s court is like that of the Medici or the Borgia. Ygrath and Barbadior’s conquests can be compared to the expansion of the empires of Spain and France, which were drawn into Italy by unwise allies who wished for them to intervene in their internecine rivalries with city-states such as Florence, Venice, Genoa, and the Papal States. The allies paid for this by being overcome by kings and emperors much more powerful than their own states.
Famously, one man who advised against taking such action was Niccoló Machiavelli. He wrote The Prince—a notorious book, one of the first on pragmatic political science—to advise Lorenzo de’ Medici (grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent) on how to act wisely as the governor of Florence.
In his final chapter, he exhorts Lorenzo to liberate Italy from “the barbarians,” likely a reference to the foreign armies of France and Spain who have taken up permanent residence on Italian lands. It is my observation that Machiavelli’s ideal to for Italian unification—something never accomplished until the efforts of Garibaldi in the nineteenth century—stems from the same national pride as Alessan feels in Tigana.
Which led me to wonder. If Guy Gavriel Kay used Machiavelli in his research, then in what ways could a reading of The Prince enrich our understanding of the conflicts in Tigana? Or a more precise question: is how Machiavelli understands memory and history the same as how Tigana understands it, or is there a difference?
On the surface, Machiavelli’s world—in ways I have already described—greatly resembles the world of Tigana. Brandin himself is a Machiavellian figure, a real Prince interested in establishing his authority across the Peninsula by driving out his rival Alberico of Barbadior. He superficially agrees to the terms of a peace treaty, while scheming to destroy Barbadior the moment it becomes convenient to break the agreement. Alberico, of course, plans to do the same, in a kind of polarized Cold War scenario where only the province of Senzio (perhaps a surrogate for Venice) remains neutral.
Machiavelli has several things to say about memory in The Prince. Some advice that he gives to Lorenzo may as well have been given to Brandin. For example, read the following paragraph from Chapter 5 on “How you should govern cities or kingdoms that, before you acquired them, lived under their own laws”:
“Examples are provided by the Spartans and the Romans. The Spartans took Athens and Thebes, establishing oligarchies there. However, they lost them again. The Romans, in order to hold on to Capua, Carthage, and Numantia razed them and never lost them. They sought to govern Greece according to more or less the same policies as those used by Sparta, letting the Greek cities rule themselves and enforce their own laws, but the policy failed, so in the end they were obliged to demolish many cities in that territory in order to hold on to them. The simple truth is there is no reliable way of holding on to a city and the territory around it, short of demolishing the city itself.He who becomes the ruler of city that is used to living under its own laws and does not knock it down, must expect to be knocked down by it.Whenever it rebels, it will find strength in the language of liberty and will seek to restore its ancient constitution. Neither the passage of time nor good treatment will make its citizens forget their previous liberty.No matter what one does, and what precautions one takes, if one does not scatter and drive away the original inhabitants, one will not destroy the memory of liberty or the attraction of old institutions. As soon as there is a crisis, they will seek to restore them. That is what happened in Pisa after it had been enslaved by the Florentines for a hundred years” (17, my Italics).
Brandin, after conquering the province of Tigana after the Battle of the River Deisa, destroyed its main cities: Avalle of the Towers and the capital Tigana. Avalle, which was inspired by San Gimignano, once had many towers that stretched to the sky. But Brandin’s forces knocked them down, in order to ensure the city’s submission to his rule. Tigana itself (based on Florence, perhaps) was demolished as well, and renamed Lower Corte—Corte having been its bitterest enemy. Avalle was renamed Stevanien, after Brandin’s son, who was killed in battle. These policies seem to be directly inspired by Machiavelli’s advice to Princes in Chapter 5.
The tyrant’s spell adds an extra layer to the political-military strategy of Machiavelli: he uses magic to erase the very name of Tigana from memory and make its name unpronounceable. One particular difference from Machiavelli’s dry strategy and Brandin’s motive to demolish Avalle is that the Tiganese killed his son and he wanted revenge. This does not mean that Brandin acts on his emotions, however. He only knows where to direct his temper. Machiavelli advises on several occasions that a Prince should “lose his temper” deliberately under certain circumstances, such as when he is being lied to (105). The demolition of Avalle would have been one such well-advised occasion for Brandin to become angry.
Machiavelli may have also unknowingly given Brandin the idea to create his spell of obliteration, if the two had ever met in some other dimension. In Chapter 1 of The Prince, Machiavelli remarks how hereditary principalities—territories where it is traditional for a particular aristocratic family to inherit power—are by far the easiest to hold, compared to republics. “Because the state has belonged to his family from one generation to another, memories of how they came to power, and motives to overthrow them, have worn away,” he advises (7).
Brandin was not necessarily planning to share or to pass on his rule. But the implication of how enough time passing eventually legitimizes the rule of a Prince may have attracted to him. Since sorcerers can live to advanced age in Tigana‘s world, he plans to outlive all the Tiganese exiles, who alone carry the memory of their homeland. Once they die, Lower Corte would know no better than that Brandin is the right and honourable ruler of the land.
In addition to these specific remarks about the ability of a ruler to hold onto power by controlling memory, Machiavelli has an understanding of history’s usefulness in deciding policy. He constantly draws upon the patterns of the past in order to find examples that can advise rulers on present courses of action and on their future ambitions. The exploits of ancient Greeks and Romans—some real, others fictitious—are on par with those of other Renaissance Italian Princes, such as Cesare Borgia, Alexander VI, and Savanarola, as examples of what-to-do or what-not-to-do. He assumes the past serves as a map for the unknown.
Kay would use the metaphor of a mirror. “With bronze as a mirror one can correct one’s appearance; with history as a mirror, one can understand the rise and fall of a state; with good men as a mirror, one can distinguish right and wrong”: the epigraph from Under Heaven (by Li Shimin, Tang Emperor Taizong) can apply just as much to Machiavelli’s understanding of political history, as to how Kay invites us to understand history.
That being said, Machiavelli has his detractors, to say the least. Francesco Guicciardini, a contemporary and a friend of Machiavelli, questioned even the usefulness of bringing the past to bear upon the present, although the patterns might be there for anyone to observe. Who, after all, can say they have ever successfully predicted the future, simply by looking at the past? He also believed that all men, though subject to sin, were essentially good—which Machiavelli’s pessimistic yet pragmatic philosophy seems to deny. “This is how it has to be,” says Machiavelli, “for you will find men are always wicked, unless you give them no alternative but to be good” (73).
Which brings to mind another cynical philosopher and his ideas of history and morality—Friedrich Nietzsche. Notorious in the twentieth century for his belief in Social Darwinism, which inspired the racialist ideas of Adolf Hitler, Nietzsche argued in Geneology of Morals that men behave good because they were given no other alternative.
Like Machiavelli, Nietzsche believed that the autonomy of the sovereign was mutually exclusive with morality. He also believed that all morality developed out of primitive ideas of punishment—that morals were literally beaten into our forefathers, so that as we evolved, we came to obey the laws better. For example, the brutal uses of capital punishment in the past—strangulation, hanging, drawing and quartering, beheading—produced the more civil society we live in during the present day.
I seriously doubt his conclusion on that last point. Nietzsche’s perception is affected by his retrospective analysis. I believe modern “civilization,” as he calls it, emerged because we rejected the brutality and absolutism of the past, not that brutality shaped our modern civilization. However, the idea that morals come from the memory of punishment is interesting in relation to Tigana: the idea that memory is directly tied to pain:
“Tigana, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul.”
When Alessan speaks these words, it could be said he engages in a (somewhat) Nietzschean understanding of memory—and by extension, perhaps of history and morality as well. He must recall the pain of his exile in order to force himself to remember his nation—and then take moral action.
Nietzsche and Machiavelli exist simultaneously in Tigana: memory (problematically) is both ingrained by pain and an intellectual tool with which to gaze into the past. The heroes of Tigana do not let their fear of punishment lead them to submit to tyrants, but they do wish to experience pain, if it preserves the memory of their homeland. And that experience of self-inflicted pain guides their self-defined morality, to do anything they can to liberate themselves from Brandin’s yoke.
But does morality itself suffer under Alessan’s model? If we can determine our own morality by deciding what to remember and forcing ourselves to remember it—carrying all the pain that memory can bring—can we be expected to reach rational decisions that respect our fellow human beings? Or could this kind of morality cause us to act according to our passions and, more importantly, our self-interest—one of the guiding human principles that Machiavelli (and notably, Thomas Hobbes) understands as the source of all human endeavour?
Just as Brandin is a tyrant, Alessan is literally a Prince. Brandin’s morality—if he has any—is almost driven entirely by the interests of himself as ruler, and those of his state. But behind this self-interest is the burning memory of Stevan’s death at the River Deisa. Prince Alessan, like Brandin, carries the Deisa in his memory, but for different reasons. His father Prince Valentin died in battle, leaving Alessan without a principality to call his own. Is Alessan simply motivated by jealousy for Brandin and his own interest in becoming ruler? Is his nationalist rhetoric only a facade?
Kay intentionally makes Brandin a foil of Alessan, adding good qualities to Brandin and evil qualities to Alessan. For example, Alessan must enslave Erlein di Senzio as his wizard servant, in order to for his master plan to work. Should a man so preoccupied with liberty be damned for making a slave of one man? (Perhaps someone ought to have asked the leaders of the American Revolution this same question, many of whom owned slaves.) Furthermore, Brandin, however ruthless, also has feelings. Dianora, his favourite woman in his saishan and a Tiganese herself, notices that he cared an enormous amount for his son and that he never forgave himself for sending him to fight in battle. She intends to kill Brandin to avenge her country, but finds herself loving the man she has schooled herself so long to hate—even saving him once from an assassin.
Guy Gavriel Kay’s George Seferis epigraph sums up his own beliefs in the ambiguity of holding onto memory:
“What can a flame remember? If it remembers a little less than necessary, it goes out; if it remembers a little more than is necessary, it goes out. If only it could teach us, while it burns, to remember correctly.”
A long enough memory can produce a desire in you to avenge all the wrongs ever done to your kind. Witness the damage that extensive memories wreck in Middle East daily. Even Nationalism, which seems a noble enough ideology until you remember the twentieth century, can go too far. Yet having no memory at all utterly robs you of any identity. I like imagining all the whitebread kids lost in the suburban USA being asked what their heritage is, and being unable to answer “English” or “Irish” or “Welsh” or “Scottish.” Assimilation into a melting pot can do as much to erase memory as Machiavellian attempts to snuff it out all at once.
Does Alessan remember correctly? Does Brandin? The answers are ambiguous, although most readers will probably side with Alessan. But it cannot be ignored that Alessan may have easily turned into the villain in Tigana. Nietzsche argued sovereigns were above morality. Yet, following one’s own painful memories might have caused Alessan to think himself above morality while rebelling against the sovereign Brandin, in an effort to fight fire with fire.
Tyrant and rebel: an age-old conflict. Each obeys no law and each is the antithesis of the other. Yet, they are, in so many ways, the same. Nietzsche believed the laws we live by were oppressive. Yet, he also (quite famously) saw a way to rebel against such authority. The creed of the Ismaili Assassins said, “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” Truths established by tyrants create a certain morality, so disbelieving in those truths frees one to perform any action suitable to overthrowing that power.
Does Alessan follow a similar creed, or does he too have a belief in truth, in morality? It would be worth a re-reading of Tigana to see just how much Alessan uses ends to justify means.
But turning away from Tigana now, other questions emerge. What are the dangers of the Assassins’ creed? If everything is permitted, do we have Hobbes’ State of Nature on our hands? Would followers of the creed then become self-interested, build up social contracts, and then begin punishing others when the contracts are breached, beginning the process of moral development all over again?
Let these questions stand as food for thought. It is not my place now to answer them, and I’ve rambled on enough as it is. But I believe it’s safe to say that memory can be a dangerous thing, especially when it forces us to disregard morality. Perhaps it depends on what we choose to store in our memory as well: if we keep hoarding pain, the fire of memory will grow so large it will consume us.
Feed the fire, but not to excess.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. Tigana. Toronto: Penguin, 1992. 1-793.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. Under Heaven. Toronto: Penguin, 2010. 1-710.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. Selected Political Writings. Ed. David Wooton. Indianapolis: Hacket, 1994. 5-80.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Morals as Fossilized Violence.” The Prince. Transl. Francis Golffing. Ed. Robert M. Adams. New York: Norton, 1977. 253-275.
Rudowski, Victor Anthony. The Prince: A Historical Critique. New York: Twayne, 1992. 12-17
Several years ago, I wrote an experimental short story: the assassination of Julius Caesar told from the perspective of his blood. I’m still quite proud of it, and I thought I’d share it with you here. A nice short story that de-familiarizes the familiar, it was originally published online at the SPACE website, an arts-sciences program based at Dawson College in Montreal, Quebec. They have some pretty amazing arts-science fusion articles, poetry, and lab reports. It’s worth checking out.
“Bloody Caesar” was the name SPACE gave to this story, but my original title was “The Ides of March.” Call it what you will; I’m not great with titles. Call it by both, in fact, if you like the retro double-title thing.
Bloody Caesar; or The Ides of March
Rome’s flowing blood pulses through veins.
Into the heart, out of it, into the heart, out into the fingers.
Thud thud. Thud thud.
Haemoglobin captures oxygen from the lungs, oxygen of the spring air. Blood cells shoot back and forth, get sucked into heart valves and blown out again into an arm, into a leg, into the nose, into the foot. Cells carry carbon dioxide back from the extremities and into the lungs to be exhaled. The heart is relaxed and pushes the blood cells throughout the body, energizing the leg muscles that make the organism walk.
The legs move in a different way, pinching the veins in the calf and heel. Slowly the organism descends stairs and the blood pumps faster. Up into the throat now, and into the head. The blood grows hot. The tongue wags. The oxygen of the Senate’s air enters the blood afresh to cool it, yet the temperature rises. The blood cannot smell the Senate air, but the organism knows where it is: in the heart of an Empire at its height.
Suddenly, the glands emit a torrent of adrenaline as the eyes dart to the side. The heart accelerates, until the rhythm mimics that of galloping horse. Arms loosen and the legs run. Oxygen is blown into the muscles like a hurricane to incinerate glucose and produce energy. But the blood cells feed the muscles like water bearers attempting to fill a pond in the desert. A shadow hangs over the organism. The heart beats at its peak.
Thud thud thud thud.
Rippling sonic waves tear through the blood stream. Almost instantly, a full penetration as a pointed pugio slashes sinew. Hot blood pours from the neck and splashes on cold marble. Blood flows and the coagulation process begins, though there can be no hope to patch the wound.
The organism reels.
A thud in the back and marble stairs pinch the blood flow as the organism reclines. The arm moves forward to block the face as cells feed the gluttonous muscles. Another penetration. A stab. Blood snakes down from the arm and wrists. A ripple of waves ebbs the blood.
Further penetrations mutilate the chest, the shoulders, the abdomen. Blood flows from veins and arteries until it becomes a scarce resource. A few seconds reprieve the wounds, but hold no consolation for the organism.
Another sonic wave moves through the blood. Once again, the cells hear nothing, but the ears hear everything. Et tu, Brute?
A pugio slips through the ribcage and kills the heart as the organism bleeds its last.