Thursday, May 14, 2009
The Terror of Constantinople, by Richard Blake
Richard Blake. The Terror of Constantinople (London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 2009).
The book, Blake’s second, is set in early seventh century Constantinople. Although a play-by-play of all the plot permutations would take up a story’s worth of space in its own right, the general outline can be summarized fairly simply. Kentish scholar Aelric, the hero of Blake’s earlier novel, is commissioned by the papacy on what is officially a research junket to Constantinople aimed at scouring the patristic literature for thelogical ammunition against the Arian minority in Spain—and unofficially a quiet diplomatic mission to secure the Emperor’s recognition of the Pope as as supreme head of the Church.
The environment into which he is thrown is suggested by Aelric’s description:
“According to what I’ve picked up on the Exchange, …the Danube frontier has collapsed and Slavs are pouring into the Balkans. The Persians have invaded Mesopotamia and may already be in Syria. The Exarch of Africa is in revolt against the Emperor, and his people have taken Egypt. These are all converging on Constantinople and it’s an open bet who will get there first. Whoever does get there will find an emperor who is incompetent for every purpose but murdering anyone who might have some ready cash to steal, or who may have given one of his statues a funny look.”
The imperial capital is torn by struggle between the papacy and the emperor, between the emperor and the Exarch of Africa, and the Machiavellian maneuvers of the old eunuch Theophanes (a high official to the Master of Offices—in contemporary terms something like chief of staff to the chief minister) to play all the factions against one another in pursuit of his own shadowy agenda. Before the story concludes, we see Constantinople terrorized by the emperor’s secret police, wracked by civil war, and captured by the forces of Heraclius, Exarch of Africa.
Like any good spy novel, Blake’s work offers many layers of intrigue. Every seeming resolution of the mystery on Aelric’s part, no matter how plausible and seemingly conclusive, turns out to have been either a dead end or only a partial understanding. Every time Aelric seems on the verge of a “locked drawing room scene,” he finds there is a larger plot in the background.
Aelric’s character is not calculated to evince sympathy on initial acquaintance. To a superficial first (and maybe second and third) glance, he is a superficial libertine and a vain clothes horse, in search of nothing but a good party. But by the fourth glance or so, we begin to suspect there is more than meets the eye. By means of a series of hints from incidents minor in themselves, and from showing Aelric’s reaction in a variety of circumstances, Blake shows us an unsuspected depth of character. Aelric reveals himself as a man of principle, not only through many small acts of decency, but through his efforts to behave justly even when it is costly and inconvenient—not with idealistic speeches or even with any particular attempt to make a point of it, but just doing it. The parallel of Oskar Schindler—who in his “real life” was a Sudeten German nationalist, Nazi collaborator, and opportunistic war profiteer—comes to mind.
Perhaps the most complex character in the book is Theophanes the eunuch, the cynical and amoral master of bureaucratic in-fighting. Despite his seemingly total lack of moral scruples regarding torture and assassination, and his willingness to do whatever is necessary to promote his ends, he comes across as remarkably sympathetic. First, we see that much of his character is not of his own making. Through his colorful history, starting with his capture as a young Syrian shepherd, and his odd detours as nursemaid and entertainer before entering imperial service, it becomes clear that if Theophanes has survived forces beyond his control, those forces have also stamped their imprint on him. Second, among all the maneuvering factions, he alone seems motivated by anything even vaguely resembling principle—in his case, an attachment to the Roman imperial ideal and a desire to preserve a polity capable of preserving order in a disintegrating world. That was his motivation in putting Phocas on the throne, and his motivation in handing the City over to Heraclius. And finally, through all else, Theophanes is displays a genuine attachment and sense of loyalty to his friends, and an appreciation and yearning for companionship. As amoral, indeed wicked, as were many of his actions, Theophanes comes across as one who has suffered much, and been hammered and twisted by the world into a monstrous form—and yet remains very much a human being. Looking on Theophanes’ severed head at the end of the book, Aelric finds himself of violently mixed feelings, and grieving despite himself.
While you shouldn’t weep for a man like that, I had to fight myself not to. How he must have dreamed of a return to the burning wilderness of his childhood—free to pass the remainder of his life without lies or betrayal. He’d come close to that. Then he’d given it all up for the child of his worst enemy and for a barbarian who’d tried his hardest, without knowing what it was, to wreck his plan.
I reached forward and pulled the eyes shut.
I suspect many readers will have similarly mixed reactions.
Blake reveals some libertarian sympathies, without hitting us over the head with them.
Aelric, taking advantage of the opportunity to read near-lost works of the classical age in the imperial library, mourns for the “vanished age of light and freedom.” Having dug out “the complete letters of Epicurus on government,” for example, this was Aelric’s reaction:
I’d guessed right about his political opinions. A wise man, he said, is one who wants to be left alone, who wants to leave others alone, and who wants others to be left alone. Therefore, the sole functions of government are to secure individuals in the possession of life and property.
“Most unlike our own dear world of universal love and justice,” I muttered….
Aelric also cherishes the surviving poetry of Sappho, and tries to recapture what the words meant to the world before the Old Faith was supplanted by the New Faith of the Jewish carpenter.
It was impossible to know how these words had sounded amid the fountains and perfect buildings of ancient Mytilene when they were first written. But they could still be appreciated by those prepared to make the effort.
And beyond the words, the stars on which she had looked remained. They were the same stars on which the first rational being of all had looked in some remote past. They were the stars on which the last rational being would, in some perhaps still more remote future, choke out his final breath.
They had shone for Sappho. They shone for me.
Or as Robert Penn Warren would say, “…nothing is lost, nothing is ever lost…. And all times are one time….”
The Empire resembles the contemporary United States in some ways. Weakened internally by corruption and exhausted by foreign wars and provincial revolt, it comes across as a hollowed-out state. As Theophanes says to the papal legate,
Can you imagine what it’s like to collect taxes when there are no taxpayers? To direct armies and ships that have their only existence on a sheet of papyrus? To govern cities that are for the most part become heaps of smoking ruins?
It is also terrorized by the kind of police state—in particular, the “Black Agents”—that Bush didn’t quite manage to foist on us, even after “9-11 changed everything.” Here are the words of the Tall Man, chief of the Black Agents, holding Aelric at his mercy in the immense labyrinth of dungeons under the Ministry:
“I will show you how pain is very like pleasure. It too has its rituals and instruments. It too has its orgasms. It too can be prolonged by those who understand the responses of the body.”
In another dialogue a police agent, with the chilling frankness of O’Brien in Room 101, describes the real purpose of the police terror:
“Why do you suppose we do this, day after day?” he asked….
“The official answer, I said, … “is that they are traitors. Really, of course, none may be guilty of anything at al. It’s really a matter of keeping control, isn’t it?”…
If I’d annoyed Alypius by draining the surprise out of his answer, his face said nothing.
“The function of terror is to break up all the guilds and clubs and professional groupings of the City into an agglomeration of individuals, each looking over his shoulder to see what the others might be saying about him. If no one speaks his mind, no one joins forces….
“How anyone gets on our death-lists is left to chance. The use of those lists, though, is wholly deliberate. Kill enough people and you can announce that the sun rises at dusk and wait for the applause.”
The followers of the African Exarch resemble the true believers of twentieth century totalitarian ideology, referring to their leader as “Blessed Heraclius,” and looking forward to the days when Heraclius rules the world as God’s Universal Exarch and “Justice and Peace and Glory will be restored.”
Blake brings to the story the obvious erudition of a classical education—but with his gift for complexity and realism of character, he makes his characters seem as real as people we know.
I highly recommend it.