Nathanial's Reviews > The Scar

The Scar by China Miéville
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's review
Dec 24, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: fantasy

How does a novel begin? I don't mean the first word on the first page, or first scene chapter plot or anything like that. Where does an author leave traces of what impelled them to tell this story?

Assuming I'll never have a chance to ask Mieville directly, allow me to speculate--at the very least, these questions lead towards considerations of balance and affect, suggesting more questions about style (ie unity vs. motley).

Three 'pivot points' stand out in the Scar, places Mieville returns to again and again: questions about narrative authority depend on characters who act as translators, characters who act as storytellers, and characters who improvise without words.

"Hedrigall was a brilliant orator, his fabler training making his descriptions and explanations sound like wildly exciting stories. It was a dangerous trait" (p.238). In this scene, a secondary character briefs a small group about an island they're about to visit, which only he has seen. I suspect, with these two sentences, the author allows us to intuit that his story of kidnap, espionage and warfare--'wildly exciting' in itself--may also serve as a description and an explanation. If so, of what? And why couch in fictive terms, and not an essay or report?

"My own role is simple, and has been made very clear. After all these weeks and all these thousands of miles, I am back to being told that I am a conduit, that I will merely pass information and language through me, that I do not hear what is spoken" (p. 252). Bellis, the only protagonist that warrants a first-person point of view, acts as a translator in the beginning and middle of the book. In each instance, the information that carries the most weight--that acts most as a catalytic element--is not the language that is being spoken: it is the encounter, the grouping of individuals across languages, that has the most effect. "Can the sub-altern speak?"

"'Fighting with a Possible Sword, you must never constrain possibilities. I must be an opportunist, not a planner--fighting from the heart, not the mind. Moving suddenly, surprising myself as well as the opponent. Sudden, labile, and formless'" (p. 397). This character eventually comes to be framed as a calculating manipulator of Bellis, and so it's especially suggestive that his favorite weapon--the Possible Sword--relies on improvisation as much as technique. The terms used here indicate a purpose unique to fiction: rather than argue, in an essay or report, Mieville coaxes, cajoles, badgers and belies his readers into wary commitments with passionate ambivalance and dubious intent.

The climax of the story, after all, may or may not have actually happened. Very few of the characters seem to know exactly--or feel a need to know with certitude--whether Hedrigall's later explanation of Armada's demise actually reflected reality. But with Mieville's infrastructure of questionable authorities, we don't need to know either.

What we're called to do is live with the uncertainty.


Take for granted that Mieville specializes in stereoscopic cityscapes--that his novels function like mosaics or tapestries, conveying movement through intricacy and image through illusion and implication as much as by action. He's not just painting a mural in the Scar ("Okay, here's the pirate city here, and here's the island of mosquito people, and here's the imperialist battle-fleet"); the tensions in his dramas rely as much on texture, depth of field, and medium as shape color or form.

Assume that he had a vision, an earth-shattering picture stuck in his head for weeks (or days or seconds--who can measure how long these inspirations develop?). Say, for instance, that you woke up one morning with the dream-shadow of a ship--no, a collection of ships, tied together by ropes and history and barnacles--being pulled over the edge of the world by a leviathan.

How would you set these jewel to give it meaning?

Would you place it prominently, or layer it under stories and secrets, rumors and scandal?

Since Mieville repeatedly emphasizes themes of incongrous melds (from Mr. Motley in Perdido Street Station, to Armada in the present book, to the rag-tag alliance of the Iron Council), it seems worth asking which gestures he makes to intentionally highlight hybridity, how he may attempt to cover-up/blend/hide the stitches between various narrative strands, and where he improvises--and lets the improvisations stand.

But that's another project.

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