The richness of experience


Tapestry
, Philip Terry (242pp, £10.50, Reality Street)


Philip Terry's novel, Tapestry, re'tells the story of the Norman invasion of England, and the making of the Bayeux Tapestry, using the marginal figures on the cloth to orchestrate his narrative. Told from the point of view of Aelthewyfe - a bearded nun with the ability to tell the future ('a morrow'seer') - Terry uses a mixture of Oulipian techniques and an approximated form of Anglo Saxon English to tell his story. The idea is simple and elegant: as Aelthewyfe and her team of embroiderers stitch the iconic central panel of the tapestry, they also subversively stitch into the margins a puzzling array of birds, beasts and mythological figures, as  well as naked, lewd and grotesque men and women. A leading chapter describes the story of each particular panel of the tapestry, and is followed by a subsequent chapter that tells the story of one of the embroiderers, using the marginal figures as narrative devices. These alternating chapters are fantastical, almost magical realist in style, and speak to the oral traditions of fable (lots of Aesop in here), fairy tale and myth. The novel is a truly wonderful demonstration of narrative techniques, literary inventiveness, and linguistic ˇlan. I really could not put it down.

It does take the first chapter to get into the mock Anglo Saxon. A typical passage runs as follows, mixing the Anglo Saxon with OuLipian letter transpositions and more contemporary parlance:

 

Othir letters arrivd torn into a thousand and oon pieces, so that they had to be pegnstakyngly put together lyk som vast jigsaw puzzle, but invariably this woud turn out to be a puzzle in which many pieces had been lost. Som pieces, moreofer, fitted equally wele in oon place or another, yet the sense was utterly fanstrormed depending on where they went. Oon such letter appeard to describe an attack in the mountains by bandits, and at once earfyng for my brothirs safety I was eager to discover the truth of the matter, as I was the cloncusion of the episode to detrermine, yet shuffling the pieces around only yielded different and equally fragmentary accounts.


Once you have it, the textures are immensely rich and rewarding. This passage also speaks to the very nature of the historical narrative, as well as nodding towards the jigsaw puzzle in the great OuLiPian novel, Life A User's Manual
, by Georges Perec. Other nods to experimental writers can be found in Terry's mythical 'Cite of Glass' and 'Cite of Unseeyng', which echo Italo Calvino's imagined worlds in Invisible Cities, and Terry's character Eyrawicker who, of course, echoes Joyce's Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker from Finnegans Wake, that masterpiece of mutating language. Terry's novel might therefore be seen as a fascinating mirror held up to these, and other novels such as Russel Hoban's Riddley Walker, or Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, in which new languages evolve to deal with new complex social contexts. But, importantly, the idea never gets in the way. This is not ars gratia artis. The language is playful, unselfconscious, and asking important questions about how, in the new political climate of Norman conquest, language and symbols can be both subversive and fully live up to the richness of our experience.

In Terry's novel there are endless inventive examples of Anglo Saxon kennings: boats are 'water'hrosses', the sea is the 'herring'road', a body is a 'bone'hus', a hand is my 'five'finger', and so on. As such, metaphor making and poetry are at the inventive forefront of the text. Very occasionally something out'of'place creeps in, like the anachronistic mention of 'gravity' and 'baloney!', or a too contemporary phrasing such as 'you get the picture', but I assume the writer is trying to do something with these weird juxtapositions. But the whole point of the invented language is to make us question the powers we attach to signs: to words, to tapestries, to forms of language. One of the embroiderers is mute and tells her story through sign language. The book also includes little section dividers in the forms of icons from the tapestry's margins. Tapestry
lovingly de' and re'constructs the sign.

The 'official' narrative of the Norman invasion is carefully worked into the book, but the most important narratives are those which tell alternative histories: was Odo (the tapestry's commissioner and William's brother), really an egocentric, womanising toady writing himself into history? Did Harold really die at Hastings; why are there several men blinded by arrows?  Did Harold in fact escape and become an actor in a troupe of travelling players; did he rebuild a new army from the distant safety of Exeter; was he in fact imprisoned by Conan, Duke of Brittany, and ignominiously dumped over the castle walls into the sea? Such apocrypha form a fascinating and playful backdrop to the magical chapters of the novel. I revelled in the language, and I realised that I knew only a very small amount about the history (of which I thought I knew a good deal). The novel even unpicks the misuse of language around the Bayeaux Tapestry which, of course, is not a tapestry at all, but an embroidery. The book seems to be asking us at all times what is the relationship between language, narrative, history and recorded truths? You really can't ask more of a book than that - to make you see something totally fresh and anew and to immerse you deeply, and playfully, into profound questioning.

But the world of a conquered England is a barbarous one. The women embroiderers tell tales of physical and sexual oppression, of rape and plunder, burning villages and summary executions, of noses slit and eyes put'out, of the brutality of battle and William as the ruthless despot subjugating his new populace. These dark ages of English history are, of course, well counterpointed by more redemptive tales, and magical ones of fantastic 'invisibility necklaces', of human metamorphosis and shape'shifting, of travel in India and the mystical East, of sisterhood and solidarity, of standing up to the oppressor. I was particularly fascinated by the many variations on illnesses and maladies that Terry runs throughout his text: forms of mad cow disease, tongue'expanding worms, plague (the characters Blister & Pox), phantom pregnancies, black bile, and some thoroughly grotesque bodily experiences. These dark ages are sensorily alive on the page; the embodied nature of experience, language and story is one of the novel's defining features. I haven't enjoyed a book so much on so many levels for a good while and urge you to read it.

    © Andy Brown 2013