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The Academy Report
As, my Lady, you are already too aware, it was in the thirty-sixth year of the late Emperor your father's reign that the decree came down to our Academy enclave. We were debating, as I well recall, which writer should receive the annual prize in the Imperial Poetry Competition. It was a chore involving much tiresome elaboration of bogus aesthetic principles, rolled out to defend the trifling work of one or other nonentity. Yet, as all of us on the committee perfectly knew, the prize would be awarded to that poet among the three or four most prominent figures who could mysteriously summon the most threatening patronage ... The arrival of your father the Emperor's messenger from the Library on the hill above our lodgings formed a welcome interruption to those tedious deliberations. (But perhaps your ladyship will allow an old man to confess that his habit was, and has always been, to keep out of the poetry prize debate, to peruse a small scroll under the table, and lazily raise a hand when the inevitable winner had emerged as if by prestidigitation from the toppling pile of manuscript there in our midst.)
Interrupting those deliberations, as I say, was the Emperor's messenger with a request which, given the enormity and burden being placed upon our institution by his Majesty, would first astonish then utterly take us aback. Initiating what would come to be called The Great Anthology Project, our Divine Ruler thereupon required us with all due speed to survey the entire contents of the collections of verses available for sale or held in the many libraries of the Empire. We were to determine for each and every poem found therein whether it fell into the progressive or the retrograde. These were categories that, it need hardly be elaborated for your sake, were minutely specified by his late Majesty, one of the greatest writers and thinkers of this or any other age. Furthermore, after having specified to his satisfaction what exactly was to constitute a progressive or a retrograde poem, his Majesty commanded us to place a distinguishing mark alongside the title of each and every work as — dare I call it? — an Imperial instruction or warning for future generations of readers. The two distinguishing marks, to be embossed onto the paper, were, as you only too well know, a black dagger for the retrograde, and a red poppy-shaped star for the progressive.
Please forgive me if I am labouring the obvious, or, for that matter, elaborating things my Lady knows with all the wisdom and insight of her young years. Your servant is an old man, and I must beg that your Majesty forgive me if I continue to describe what occurred in my hopelessly pleonastic style. It is the only means at my disposal for keeping on at all. There were, as you are too aware, initial difficulties following out the Anthology Decree. As your father the late Emperor wrote in a language not used by ordinary mortals and, while interpreting his works was in truth one of our functions, for this once a certain friction could be sensed among our ranks about what precisely the exclusive categories covered. Moreover, it would not be too much to say that the terms themselves, when scrutinized by a hall full of sages, began to achieve a certain amorphousness of definition. Did the progressive hold exclusive claim to the adventitious and the innovative? If the retrograde were somehow shown to be resourceful, would that automatically transport it into the progressive category? And if a progressive work were also revealed to be conserving certain images from earlier poems, would this oblige it to carry the scar of a black dagger beside its title? My Lady will have already fully appreciated our difficulties without need of my numerous pedantic and painfully pedestrian examples.
Nor did it seem we were to make exception for poems that had once upon a time been hailed as progressive. No, our rule was to be applied across all provinces and for all times. Even before we had begun hiring and training a veritable army of scribes to carry out our task, there were some first signs of the dangers to come. One of our members resigned from the Academy leaving behind a letter in which he lamented the purism that sought to isolate these two (as he benightedly saw it) interdependent concepts. He further inquired whether it made sense to imagine that conserving a style could possibly mean denying it the power to evolve, or whether, for that matter, the new could carry meaning without a vital tradition in which it might be appreciated. They are indeed commonplace arguments, my Lady, but we feared to show his resignation letter to the Emperor. What became of him? The Academy has never in fact been informed of his fate, but suffice to say he disappeared. My heartfelt prayer is that he was able to take his own life in virtuous peace before the forces of correction discovered his whereabouts.
Yet a further difficulty, and one which proved in effect insurmountable, was what to do about your father the Emperor's own oeuvre. In its sustained lyrical force it is unparalleled; yet it frequently seems shadowed with memories of his Majesty's enormous reading in the anthologies of his ancestors. His works are full of instruction and sentence, informed with the wisdom of the sages, yet, presented in the highest and most purified dialect, their subtlety is sadly lost on hosts of the Empire's readers. My Lady, I hope you will allow me to take this occasion to deny categorically the ugly rumour that I know has circulated regarding his deathless compositions, namely the calumny that they were actually assembled by a committee of academicians especially selected for the task. To my knowledge, no such committee has ever existed; and, as you yourself know, the late Emperor was not one to accept advice on life-and-death matters of state, so why ever would he let the inhabitants of our frankly marginal ivory tower tell him how to attune his innermost thoughts?
Naturally, your late father's work still is — and always will be — held in the highest esteem by the Academy; but, when attempts were made by certain of my late colleagues to interpret the exclusive categories with reference to his Majesty's work, a further unforeseen difficulty arose. If, as we unanimously agreed, the Emperor's poetry would be the yardstick of the progressive, then, given that ordinary mortals were not allowed to speak in such tones, did this not imply that all other poetry would be consigned to the retrograde? It seemed impossible that this could be the import and purpose of the Anthology Decree.
Indeed, there was no indication in the Emperor's commands to us that his poetically inclined subjects, guided by the two categories, should not continue to draw benefit from both the innovative and the conservational. Yet one of the earliest unforeseen consequences of his instituted policy was that debates taking up vast reams of manuscript and scroll began to appear concerning which of the two types of poem the Emperor truly favoured — with his own verse cited and dissected in support of both camps. Indeed it wasn't long before controversies were flourishing about what type of poem best illustrated the Emperor's theories and would, therefore, be more likely to receive the accolade in the annual Imperial Competition. My earlier remarks on that yearly chore have surely underlined sufficiently the naïvety of those speculations. Yet some of them were certainly ingenious: it had been pointed out that since the Emperor was then himself the most recent in a Dynasty that has survived centuries of philistine intrigue, he instanced in his own person the flowering of the retrograde. Others proposed the case that the very unintelligibility of his verse to ordinary mortals was a mark of its being indubitably in the realm of the red poppy-shaped stars. It hardly needs adding that had either of these risible arguments reached the ears of the Emperor himself they would have been treated with a minimum of leniency in the inevitably fatal interview between pathetic tyro and divine Authority.
Yet, as you know to your sorrow, my dear Lady, the Emperor's way of life had begun to alter alarmingly some few years before he delivered (may I be allowed to suggest?) his baleful Decree. Perhaps you yourself have never been informed that he had taken to wearing a monotone monk-like garb through every season. He had further delegated all ceremonial functions to a brilliant actor who would impersonate him when visits occurred from the heads of vassal fiefdoms and the like. After begetting his only child and heir (your most forgiving Majesty), he devoted himself entirely to his studies, building for his Empress the pleasant suburban seaside villa in which you spent your quiet, yet all but fatherless childhood. As you may or may not know, he had commanded your loving mother never to set foot on pain of death in the grounds of his Library on the hill, or, for that matter, the Academy enclave on its lower slopes. There he lived with his retainers and librarians, sometimes talking late into the night with the one or two promising academicians who belonged to his sparse inner circle. Now and then vague rumours would reach us of the subjects they might treat in those nightlong conversations. At word of them, we stood abashed.
Our work continued apace, and, after some years, his cherished Academy was able to report a degree of achievement to the Emperor. We had managed to evaluate the works held in public libraries as well as most of the material then offered in the marketplace. We were already making headway with gaining access to private libraries, and had, on an ad hoc basis, you will understand, begun to standardize individual copies held by private citizens. We were not displeased to note how well the Academy had responded to these unprecedented challenges, and sincerely hoped that the Emperor would agree. Sadly, however, submitting our interim report on those labours had the opposite effect to that intended. The Emperor soon made it known to us he wished his project extended to all works announced as forthcoming from the Empire's publishing houses.
The mute and glorious departed could not, of course, object to having their verses marked with our daggers and poppies. The few living whose works were illustrious enough to be readily accessible found they were obliged to stomach the indignity without any court of appeal. But the extension of our mandate to works not quite yet available introduced a new dimension to our difficulties. Having one's verses branded with a thicket of daggers would seriously damage their reputation and, consequentially, sales. Our peaceful Academy enclave situated within the Imperial Botanic Gardens became the stage for protests by schools of young poets carrying banners and wearing various colours of helmet. When they were not trying to interrupt our efforts, they were staging pitched battles between their rival factions. It was all most unseemly. Satirical verses were circulated anonymously in which we were personally attacked. None of us escaped. Some members were physically jostled on their climb up the hill-slope towards the Library's outer gates. Cases emerged of our scribes being offered, and of receiving, bribes to increase the number of red poppies in a given slim volume. This, I fear, is what may have happened in the unfortunate case of the book thought to contain verses dedicated, with however extreme obliqueness, to your Majesty when still a budding girl. Of its luckless author's fate I'm afraid I can tell your Highness nothing.
Rumours of our difficulties at the Academy enclave reached the ears of political cliques in and around the capital. The quality of their writing in general need not concern us, even less the specific merits of their various ventures into the composition of tendentiously original folktales. What did cause rising concern at the time was the impact of their ignorance of literary refinements on the already vexed questions surrounding our work. There was quite naturally a concerted effort to associate each of the two categories with specific court factions — something which, I hasten to note, was never part of the Emperor's original definitions — thus clouding further the issues involved, and further complicating the emotions stirred by each specific adjudication.
This was bad enough, but it was aggravated by the eventual involvement of the priests who, until then, had been benignly smiling upon our efforts from their temples on the far side of the city, beyond our famous river rolling between its populous cliffs and the main thoroughfares of the markets. Taking advantage of their autonomy and elaborate structures of protection and defence, the priests weighed in on the side of the retrograde, arguing with a certain justification that the category was unfairly discriminated against. Some of their followers are, of course, utterly fanatical. There were death-threats hurled at academicians who appeared over-inclined to award red poppies. This was when my dear wife and our poor children were still with me. There were attempts on the lives of rival anthologists — not for the usual reason (one or another poet being somehow overlooked), but because they were either thought too inclined to include works bound to be garnished with a dagger, or else favour ones as likely to be stamped with a star.
Naturally these death-threats further depleted our numbers, whether because their victims went into hiding or because the threats were carried out, I do not wish to speculate. How I have survived, my Lady, I nightly ask myself among my prayers. Perhaps those years of quietly studying one of our classics under the table at the Poetry Competition debates has stood me in good stead. But word, my Lady, has recently reached me from your outer provinces beyond the White Mountains that some whose self-esteem has been so trampled by these developments are gathering supporters around them. I fear our Literary World may be descending into a vicious chaos. No, it has not happened; but I fear it. My Lady, I fear it.
Finally, your Majesty, I must compel myself to speak about the treasury. Although the monies accruing from the tax on literature are not vast, and despite a certain slight increase in public interest when the Emperor's Decree was first made public, there has been a sharp subsequent decline in revenues from the markets. One plausible explanation for this may be that the black daggers have driven readers away from certain kinds of poem while the red poppies have not succeeded in igniting an enthusiasm for other kinds. The Academy's various efforts to promote literature among the distracted populace (such as the institution of an Imperial Poetry Day) have made little real impact — beyond the inevitable one of flattering those featured poets who enjoy powerful patronage while fuelling the already smouldering resentments of those who do not. Many of the hoi polloi with whom I have been in any sort of contact during this difficult period have expressed their bemusement or indifference. Admittedly, their understandings of the matter have little significance, and need not detain us here.
However, the cost to the Academy of recruiting and training scribes and clerks, the journeys undertaken through the length and breadth of the Empire, the additional expenses incurred in policing the Academy enclave and providing protection for academicians, has been nothing short of ruinous. Though requests were made to the Emperor for subventions in his declining years, it was by that stage far too late. He had turned away from the world. He was intent on the composition of his deathless cycles of last poems. It has been whispered he expired a disappointed man. Yet who could have predicted that so much misery and waste of talent would come from an effort to determine once and for all certain literary values? Who could have thought that to let such values flow with the times and to leave them in the casual care of those who need them most would prove the safer and more enlightened policy?
And thus, my Lady, it is with the most miserable regret and humble supplication that I write on behalf of those who remain in the Academy to beg your indulgence in granting our request. We most dearly beg that your Majesty temporarily suspend (should your Majesty think fit) the operation of the late Emperor your father's Anthology Decree.
* * *
Many years have now passed since I submitted the Academy's report to my Lady (who would so quickly blossom into such a fine teller of tales) and it had, I am pleased to relate, more than the desired consequence. Not only did our young Empress revoke her father's Decree; in her wisdom, she ordered us to set about removing the daggers and poppies from all the poetry collections that had been — I allow myself the liberty of a man surely on his deathbed — defaced by that meddlesome Imperial command. She even designed a scalpel-like knife, adapted from one of those used by her Court beauticians, to help us fulfill our duty to the Empire's culture. It was yet again an arduous task, once more almost bringing our long-suffering Academy to its knees, what with such considerations as the hire and control of workers travelling far and wide to undertake so menial an operation. Without an interim subvention from the Empress herself, the so-called Special Poetry Award, I am by no means sure that we would have been able to bring to completion her far more enlightened Decree.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Foreigners, Drunks and Babies"
Copyright © 2013 Peter Robinson.
Excerpted by permission of Two Rivers Press.
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Table of Contents
The Academy Report,
Lunch with M,
From the Stacks,
A Mystery Murder,
Foreigners, Drunks and Babies,