THE HAIR-CARPET WEAVERS – Andreas Eschbach (1995, transl. 2005)

The Hair-Carpet Weavers (Eschbach Jessalyn Brooks)This book deserves to become a classic, and it is fitting that Penguin published it as part of its Classics SF series in 2020. The debut of German author Andreas Eschbach, The Hair-Carpet Weavers was translated in English in 2005, and first published as The Carpet Makers.

The Hair-Carpet Weavers is the better title, as it captures something of the strangeness this 314-page novel possesses – still, don’t be alarmed by that, New Weird this is not, not at all. On the contrary, it has a very solid, grounded feel.

While not fully perfect, the book is a gem that combines Le Guinish calm, mythical storytelling as in Earthsea, with a space opera plot that nods at Herbert and has the outrageous imagination of Iain M. Banks. I’d say this would appeal to both science fiction and fantasy readers, and the beginning of the book also reminded me a bit of Piranesi, another gem that was still fresh in my mind.

It also features a formal narrative approach I have rarely encountered, and definitely not as honed to perfection as it is here.

The Hair-Carpet Weavers starts with the story of Ostvan, a weaver whose sole occupation it is to weave a carpet using the hairs of his three wives, who each have a different hair-color. The weaving of the carpet is an intricate job, and it takes a lifetime to complete one carpet. The next chapter features a different viewpoint, focusing on a trader in hair-carpets. Each subsequent chapter has a different point-of-view, and while each chapter could be considered as a short story, they all are tied together closely – both in theme as in time. Eschbach manages to slowly unfold the mystery of the hair-carpet weavers, and the story zooms out as it evolves, but never loses touch with the people that populate it.

The different viewpoints – they are always different, not a single one is repeated – might hinder character development, but this is not really an issue, as each chapter has its own emotional conclusion, and the bigger story does develop – as does the society it is set in. I cannot stress the mastery Eschbach shows to pull something like this off, all in a fairly short novel for today’s standards. That narrative & emotional control is much more important than the fun, but ultimately superficial gimmick – a story about weavers that is woven out of different narrative threads itself.

To say much more on the plot would spoil it, as the gradual discovery is part of the story’s charm. It’s best to know as least as possible. The fact that this also qualifies as space opera is revealed on the back, and I guess it’s only fair to do so, but at the same time that already spoils things a bit.

I’ll list a few things that might convince you, and draw you in: this book has a brutality at its core, both in some individual scenes as at the heart of the plot, but it is never grimdark or cheap or gory. The brutality is subdued, even poetic at times, but poignant none the less, and as such ties into reality. At one or two instances the book has also a kind of cartoonish, pulpy feel, but The Hair-Carpet Weavers isn’t superficial at all: Eschbach has written a perceptive book on religion & secularization. There are also a few clear thematic links to Herbert’s God Emperor of Dune and the Bene Gesserit. Some chapters have an almost metaphorical nature, and I was reminded of Kafka and Christopher Priest too a few times.

There were 2 instances I didn’t fully buy a character’s motivation, and the delivery of the climax at the end of the novel wasn’t fully satisfying, but all and all these are minor blemishes. This is highly recommended: a formal tour de force, a rich, almost outrageous, speculative fiction story that also has a bit of a nostalgically old school feel, but nonetheless is very much its own thing. A final selling point: this is both epic and small – the narrative focused, not some sprawling bloatfest published as 3 doorstoppers.

It would be nice if a publisher would translate more of Eschbach’s books into English. Maybe start with Quest, the 2001 prequel to Die Haarteppichknüpfer – it has been translated to French already.

The Carpet Makers


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33 responses to “THE HAIR-CARPET WEAVERS – Andreas Eschbach (1995, transl. 2005)

  1. Like the sound of this. I’ll give it a go.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Great review 🙂 I’ve re-read this last year when it was published by Penguin – can’t say anything to the translation, as it was my German edition that I kept running back – my review’s here: https://reiszwolf.wordpress.com/2020/08/06/the-hair-carpet-weavers-1995-sf-novel-by-andreas-eschbach/
    Since then, I read the newest Eschbach novel, which is a thrilling doorstopper, but not available in English: “Eines Menschen Flügel”, a YA Science Fantasy, hugely different in tone and style to the Weavers.

    That new imprint is very interesting. I’ve also read the equally strange “Trafalgar” by Gorodischer (review: https://reiszwolf.wordpress.com/2020/08/04/trafalgar-1979-sf-novel-by-angelica-gorodischer/ ).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, I’ll look into the series, I like the covers, I also bought a Lem title in the series.

      I hear the language in the German original is also really excellent, and a treat in and of itself – maybe some of that is lost in the translation, but it surely is a good translation, it never rubbed me the wrong way, very solid prose in English.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Can’t comment on this particular book, but the trouble with English translations is that they generally read very well, but are often full of inaccuracies, ommisions and places where the translator just couldn’t be bothered with solving a pun or a difficult reference. This is partly because the English-speaking world is so big and there is no single tradition or “best practice” to guide the translators, who often feel that it’s their right as co-creators to take serious liberties. For a striking example of this, see the debate surrounding the translation of Han Kang The Vegetarian – in Germany, Poland or Czechia, the frank incompetence of the translator would probably put her out of business for some time, whereas in the Anglosphere, she is giving well-paid lectures and has prominent translation scholars coming to her defense. For a counter-example, however, see the bitter and detailed discussions around English translations of Dostoyevsky.

        (I’m in a bit of a rush, but can provide links for my two examples later, if needed.)

        Liked by 2 people

        • Yes, links would be nice, it’s an interesting topic. I wasn’t aware of the particular result of English language dominance.

          One of the books I love best in my library is an edition of the collected poems of Celan, with left the German originals and to the right a Dutch translation. I generally understand German, but not fluently at all, and surely not enough to appreciate it fully without any help, it would take me much too long to read this book in the original version. The comparison of the Dutch to the German Celan poems is part of the joy reading that edition.

          As for discussion on translations, have you seen this? It’s fantastic, I think you’ll love it: https://www.waggish.org/2020/now-i-am-become-death-the-destroyer-of-worlds/

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        • But as for English, generally the translations are better – or at least read better – than the Dutch translations, at least the few times I checked. I’ve compared a few stories of Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales in the Dutch translation which has been out for years, and the 2-part English edition that only came out in 2018 and 2020. I did this because the Dutch translations are available in the local library, but in the end I decided to fork out the cash for the second English volume too. Not that the Dutch translation was bad, but it simply wasn’t smooth, which made for horrible reading.

          I should finish that first tome of Shalamov too, now that I think of it, it’s brilliant, but somehow I got distracted and I haven’t touched it in months.

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  3. I’ve never heard of this, but it sounds fascinating! Thanks for putting a spotlight on it. I’ll be putting this one on my list. You say it is not New Weird but I have no trouble with that subgenre at all and I’ll be picking up some more weird fiction this year. I love that stuff.

    I looked at this new imprint and I saw that Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus is there and Lem’s Cyberiad and that always makes me happy to see those books in print.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not big on weird fiction overall, generally I feel if it’s weird, it also has a random factor that kinda signals: when everything can happen, nothing really matters.

      It’s an interesting selection indeed, lots of stuff I didn’t know, I think I’ll pick up a few more.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A classic? I remain skeptical…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Why?

      Most reviews are positive (3 to 5 stars) btw, the only negatives I’ve come across are from people who clearly didn’t pay attention. Not everybody raves about it, but everyone who payed attention seems to see at least some merrit here.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Nothing in your review leads me to think this will somehow stand the test of time. Sure, you liked it a lot and it was a good book, but there are a TON of good and even bunches of really good, books out there.

        Give it another 25 years then we can talk.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ah okay, I hear you. I’ll have to add a few things then…

          I do think it stands out formally, and I do think the story is timeless. Because of the way it is written, I’m 100% sure it will age better than most so called classics from the 60ies/70ies.

          Good that you raised this issue, allowed me to clarify a few things.

          Liked by 1 person

          • This is why I’m so spoilerific, and why I like spoilers, in my reviews. The grit and the details are where a book can be classed a classic or not.

            Honestly though, classic really means nothing more than “popular for a long time”. People might tack on “reasons” but in essence, that is what I see a classic as.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Yeah, sure, and in that sense this book is not well known enough to be dubbed a classic. I hope the Penguin exposure helps – even though it doesn’t help he doesn’t have other English translation. It did won a French and a German price though.

              As for spoilers, really can’t do it for a book that’s not well known, especially as the joy of discovery is one of its atractions.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Going a bit off topic here, but spoilers.

                Have you ever thought about doing a spoilerific section, so those who read your reviews can choose that if they want it? Or is that too much effort for something your opposed to it anyway? On my blog, I always try to include a synopsis that is detailed enough so the reader doesn’t have to read the book to get the plot if they don’t want to read the actual book. And I’ve had a lot of people tell me that they just skip the synopsis section for that reason 😀

                I guess I should have started this by asking, are you spoiler adverse on a personal or general level?

                Liked by 1 person

              • I’m not really spoiler adverse on principle, I’ve included lots of spoilers in posts over the years, especially in my more analytic reviews, or the negative reviews that pan books because of inconsistenties and plot holes. I don’t even tend to warn readers for mild spoilers, and not even for huge spoilers in the analytic reviews like the ones on Dune or LOTR, as I think it’s pretty clear what people are getting into when they start those.

                But for books like this, where the mystery is central, and that aren’t well know, and that I enjoyed myself, I don’t want to spoil the first time experience for other readers. I kinda gave away too much already.

                There’s a synopsis of this on Wikipedia if you’re interested btw, but I’d advice against reading that if you have even a slight intention of reading the book itself.

                As for your synopsis sections, I always skip that, unless it’s a book I know, of know I’ll never read.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Thanks for replying in detail. That is what I was looking for.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Back when I started writing reviews, I did include spoiler warnings more, but now I just think: trust me reader, I know what I’m doing, and I trust you to know what you’re doing too.

                Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve encountered this on Andreas’s blog I believe – it sounds very intriguing, and I’ll be keen to check out some German SF 😀 Doubly now, as I read two glowing reviews from bloggers whose opinions I trust 😀 Sounds fascinating, so I think I’ll just check if it’s available in my library! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t remember where I first saw it, but after I read another glowing review on Andreas’s blog indeed, I decided to go for it.

      Penguin is a big player, so while it’s new, it should end up in libraries. The original English publication in 2005 was done by Tor, not a small imprint either.

      I think you’d like it too, and the fact that it is an original thing in a sea of generic stuff only adds to the pleasure.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This book did come to my attention some time ago thanks to another review I read, but back then I was not in the habit of keeping a list of interesting titles to revisit periodically when it was time to buy some new books, so thank you for the reminder! 🙂 The premise of the novel sounds intriguing and I’m curious to see how the interconnected single stories work out.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Very encouraging, it’s style and it’s tropes… and I really want to try this new Penguin series, I love the covers. It’s interesting they published Lem’s Cyberiad there, that’ something that should surprise readers of Solaris 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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