Rats and Gargoyles by Mary Gentle, is one of my favorite novels of all time, and Mary Gentle has always been on the list of authors from whom I hope, one day, to learn something.
What I find particularly appealing about Gentle’s work is the idea that the reader should do their job: think, connect the dots, fill in the blanks. This is part of what makes the Gentle so “difficult” but also, I believe, so rewarding for those who have the courage to face the reading.
In the past few days I received as a gift a copy of Cartomancy, the volume that brings together all the short fiction by the author (excluding the stories of the White Crow series, which are found in a separate volume). It is one of the many collections of short stories that came to me for my birthday – and I thought … why not do a series of posts, a piece on each short story?
And why not start with the stories in Cartomancy?
(also, this is a the first in a series of posts that I will do on my Patreon, both in Italian and English – this one is freely available here too, and on my Patreon page)
And let’s start immediately with something complicated – let’s start with the second title in the collection, The Logistics of Carthage, for the simple fact that the first story – which is also the preface – is divided into two parts, and the second part closes the volume as appendix.
As we said, a complicated writer, Mary Gentle.
The logistics of Carthage is a novella that takes place in the same narrative universe as the novels Ash and Ilario. It is independent of both, but also not, and it gets tricky because in the approximately multi-pages of the two novels there is much more space to explore the world in which the action takes place.
In Carthage we see glimpses of it, and we have to work to put the pieces together.
Somewhere in the fifteenth century, a company of European mercenaries in the service of the Turks in North Africa are faced with a problem of a religious nature: the local ecclesiastical authorities refuse the burial of one of the mercenaries: a woman in men’s clothing and a fighter, the dead is a collection of mortal sins, which make religious funerals or burial in consecrated land impossible.
While the military and religious authorities engage in a particularly brutal tug-of-war (in the end, it is the lansquenets we are talking about, not exactly people who go about it gently), we also witness the story of Guilamme, a pikeman perhaps too sensitive for his own good, and Yolande, also a female soldier, also suspended in a kind of limbo – she enjoyed much more autonomy and respect when she followed the baggage train, and sold herself to the soldiers.
But now that she’s handling a crossbow? A problem.
But there is much more, because The logistics of Carthage takes place in the same world as Ash, a world in which history has taken a different turn, and Carthage has not been destroyed, but has become the capital of a Visigoth Aryan (in the sense of heresy) empire which, in medieval times, expanded towards Spain, coming into conflict with the Europeans and, above all, with Burgundy – a medieval superpower that disappeared without a trace in our timeline in 1477 ( and on the subject, and on many other pieces of Europe that have vanished into thin air, there is the splendid Vanished Kingdoms, by Norman Davies).
As you can guess from the few notes above, Carthage is a complicated business, working on many levels.
It offers a glimpse of a world that is not ours, and translates some of the conflicts of our history into this world.
It confronts the relationship between faith and authority, and what it means to be seen by those in front of us, or by those who will come after us.
What will archaeologists say about the remains of poor Margaret Hammond, aka Guido Rosso, in five hundred years? Will they recognize her as a soldier, or will they imagine her as a woman following her army?
And then there is the question of how much space can feelings have in the lives of people who have devoted their lives to brutality.
And it’s a prequel, a “twenty years earlier” for the novel Ash: A Secret History.
A lot of work, for a few pages.
The fact that the novella works perfectly is a testament to how good Mary Gentle is.
Her style, her elliptical approach to fiction could turn many readers away, and it would be a shame.
But who knows, maybe the next story will be “easier”.