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 nevertheless, 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.