This afterword first appeared in the ROC USA 10th anniversary edition of Tigana, published in 1999. It is reprinted here with kind permission of the publishers.
Tigana is in good part a novel about memory: the necessity of it, in cultural terms, and the dangers that come when it is too intense. Scelto’s decision at the end of the novel is a reflection of that, and so is the George Seferis passage that served as one of my epigraphs. The world today offers more than enough examples of both pitfalls: ignorance of history and its lessons, and the refusal to let the past be past.
So, accepting that this is precarious terrain – an author’s memories of a book about remembering – what does that imply, more than a decade after the writing?
Well, one might consider caution as a byword.
I doubt there’s any other novel I’ve written for which I’d even attempt a reconstruction of the earliest seeds of the book. But Tigana happens to have had a number of quite specific and very powerful elements in its origin, and some of these I can (or I have persuaded myself that I can) reconstruct.
Some time in the latter part of the 1980’s I began seeing in my mind a hunting cabin in the woods, in some Medieval or Renaissance setting. There was someone unexpected (from the point of view of those inside) sitting in the window. I had not the least idea who that was or what else happened, in those early days, but I knew that a book would unfold from whatever took place in and around that cabin.
There exists a photo – I think I saw it first in ‘LIFE’ magazine – from Czechosloviakia, in 1968, the time of the ‘Prague Spring’ when a brief, euphoric flicker of freedom animated that Iron Curtain country before the Soviet tanks rolled in and crushed it brutally.
There are actually two photographs. The first shows a number of Communist Party functionaries in a room, wearing nondescript suits, looking properly sombre. The second is the same photo. Almost. There is one functionary missing now, and something I recall to be a large plant inserted where he was. The missing figure – part of the crushed uprising – is not only dead, he has been erased from the record. A trivial technical accomplishment today, when the capacity we have for altering images and sound is so extreme, but back then the two photographs registered powerfully for me, and lingered for twenty years: not only killed, but made to never have been.
Another starting point: there’s a play called ‘Translations’, by Brian Friel. It is basically an extended, passionate debate between a village priest in Ireland and the leader of an English survey team that has been traversing the countryside, mapping it carefully and – more importantly – changing the names of places, from Gaelic to English. Both men are aware of what is at stake: when you want to subjugate a people – to erase their sense of themselves as separate and distinctive – one place to start (and it is sometimes enough) is with their language and names. Names link to history, and we need a sense of our history to define ourselves. When Maoist China decreed that history began with their own Long March and introduced an education system to back that up, thereby eradicating thousands of years of the past (or trying to), they knew exactly what they were doing.
It is hardly an accident that separatist movements so often involve attempts to reclaim a lost language. In Provence highway signs give place names in both French and the almost-lost Provençal tongue. The independence movement in Wales has incorporated attempts to reclaim their language as one of public discourse (a reaction to the English refusal to allow it to be used in schools or even schoolyards once upon a not-so-long-ago time). In Quebec, the often bitter struggle between Separatists and those who wish to remain a province of Canada finds a battleground in language all the time. Tigana was an attempt to use magic to explore these themes: erasing a people from the record of history by stripping them of their name.
A story like this needs a setting. Another strand to mine, even before it was a story, came from reading early Italian Renaissance history. The record of that brilliant and brutal time brought home to me how long-delayed Italian coherence and identity was because of the savage feuding among the city-states. Internal warfare made them not only incapable of repelling the ambitions of France and Spain but led the Italian cities to take turns inviting them in – so long as the outside army did a proper job of raping and pillaging hated Milan or Venice or Florence or Pisa on behalf of whichever city had extended them an invitation. The boot of Italy became my Peninsula of the Palm, with the ambience of olive groves and vineyards I wanted, and my model for Brandin of Ygrath became that of a Borgia or Medici prince, arrogant, cultured, far too proud. Alberico, opposing him, was a crude, efficient Politburo survivor.
The novelist Milan Kundera fed my emerging theme of oppression and survival with his musings about the relationship between conquered peoples and an unstable sexuality: what I called ‘the insurrections of night.’ The underlying ideas, for me, had to do with how people rebel when they can’t rebel, how we behave when the world has lost its bearings, how shattered self-respect can ripple through to the most intimate levels of our lives.
I wanted to start a book about subterfuge and deception with an outright lie – and the first sentence of chapter one does that. I wanted to work with music, the mobility of musicians in a relatively immobile society, and to re-examine the mage-source bond from Fionavar, showing a darker side to such a link: and that wish found an outlet in Alessan’s binding of Erlein. I hoped to explore, as part of the revolt the book would chronicle, the idea of the evils done by good men, to stretch the reader with ambiguities and divided loyalties in a genre that tended (and still tends) not to work that way.
The debate between Alessan and Erlein is intended as a real one, not a plot device. The assertion made by the bound wizard that the roads of the eastern Palm are safer under Alberico than they were under Sandre d’Astibar is meant to raise a question about the legitimacy of pursuing one’s quarrels – even one’s quest for a people’s obliterated identity and past – by using others as unwilling instruments. By the same token, the same is true of the rage Alessan’s mother feels, seeing her son coolly attempting to shape a subtle, balanced political resolution for the entire peninsula, where she sees only a matter of hatred and blood and Tigana’s lost name.
These are ambitious elements for what was always meant to be a romantic adventure. They intimidated me as they began to emerge, even recording them now I find myself shaking my head. But beneath them all lies the idea of using the fantasy genre in just this way: letting the universality of fantasy – of once upon a time – allow escapist fiction to be more than just that, to also bring us home. I tried to imagine myself with a stiletto not a bludgeon, slipping the themes of the story in quietly while keeping a reader turning pages well past bedtime.
It is a matter of gratitude and pleasure for me to have a sense, on this tenth anniversary of a generously received book, that it might have happened that way: those first ideas and images and wishes becoming the foundation pieces of the novel, the themes sliding in, people awake into the night.
This is how I like to remember it, at any rate.
Guy Gavriel Kay