The Big Idea: Guy Gavriel Kay
Art is a powerful inspiration for more art, and for the artists who create it, as acclaimed author Guy Gavriel Kay found when thinking about Under Heaven, his latest book of historical fantasy. For this one, Kay reached far back in time, to a place and art form many of us here in the West don’t know very much about. I’ll let him share both with you.
GUY GAVRIEL KAY:
So, here’s a big idea for a novel: eighth century Chinese poetry. Bow down all ye dazzled. (Slip quietly out the back, all ye others?)
But the truth is, it was a poem, and a note to the translation, that became catalysts for Under Heaven, my newest book, which is indeed inspired by Tang Dynasty China in the 8th century. That glorious, violent, dazzling era.
The fast backgrounder is this: it is pretty much undisputed (except by a few diehard fans of limericks) that China in the Tang period represents an absolute apex of many elements of culture, with their poetry preeminent. The great names of the High Tang are, really, among the very greatest names of anywhere, any time.
When I started reading and corresponding with academics in preparation for Under Heaven I knew I’d have to try to come to terms with this element of the setting. It wasn’t an ordeal. This is magnificent art, even in translation – though the limitations of that are obvious and enormous. (“Poetry is what is lost in the translation,” Robert Frost famously said.)
I actually owned a few of these translations from years ago (sorry, I’m, er, like that) and while awaiting the arrival of a truckload of new books and articles on various topics from various places, I began reading one of them. It was a Penguin Classics edition of selected work of the two greatest figures, Li Po and Tu Fu (now generally called Li Bai and Du Fu, in the altered spelling system we use).
There’s a poem by Du Fu called ‘Ballad of the Army Wagons’, a risky, unusual work with a remarkable level of identification with ‘ordinary soldiers’ and their families in a society where poets were more likely to write about themselves and their literary friends – or about the court and high deeds, though usually set in a fictional (fantasy?) past.
The poem voices the lament of conscripted farmers being sent off to war leaving families to starve, crops unsown, harsh taxes still demanded. And the ballad ends with a vision that stopped me cold: of the crying ghosts of slain soldiers by a remote western mountain lake, a savage battlefield for past a hundred years, including very recently, in Du Fu’s own time. The image of those ghosts wailing in that mountain bowl hit me hard this time, and immediately.
But that wasn’t all. In a note to the poem, one of the men who worked on that Penguin edition adds a personal story. Seems his father, a mining engineer in the modern day (obviously!), working in this remote northwestern area (north of Tibet) used to pay herders to bring him the bones of soldiers who had died in those battles 1300 years ago and more. They were still there by the lake. And this modern-day engineer felt a need to do what he could to lay some of those long-ago ghosts to rest, to honour them.
The fusion of the poem and the note, and what I’d begun reading about time and place and the dazzling array of possible figures to draw upon for a novel (history done with my usual ‘quarter turn to fantasy’ as one reviewer’s described it) became central to the shaping of my book. That poem, the mountain lake, those battles, the unburied dead … fused into one of the first ‘big ideas’ for Under Heaven. The story begins there.