Tuesday, February 10, 2009


This slim volume by the Scottish author Alasdair Gray manages to pack more wit and invention into its scant pages than most other writers can manage in a whole, hulking novel. And that is quite an achievement.

Reminiscent of Calvino’s Cosmicomics, Kafka at his most mordant, Dunsany at his most playful, or Ernest Bramah at his most esoteric, Five Letters From An Eastern Empire manages to evoke all of these fine writers and yet still create a world that remains uniquely the territory of Alasdair Grey.

Originally published as part of the collection Unlikely Stories, Mostly and then separately as part of the Penguin 60’s editions a few years ago, Five Letters From An Eastern Empire (Describing etiquette, government, irrigation, education, clogs, kites, rumour, poetry, justice, massage, town-planning, sex and ventriloquism in an obsolete nation) comprises of a series of letters from the poet Bohu concerning his journey to and arrival in the capital and his task – one which he has been raised from birth to accomplish – of writing a poem exalting the Emperor.

However, when Bohu discovers that the Emperor is, literally, nothing more than a puppet and that his regime is a cruel and corrupt one, the task seems utterly impossible. How the poet writes his poem and the effects of the finished piece form the narrative of the story, but a narrative that is secondary to the wonderfully twisted world in which he lives, a world that is by turns hilarious and terrifying – although it depends on your point of view which aspects are which.

Describing in minute detail the farcical etiquette, customs and clothing of this strange empire – redolent of the ancient dynasties of China or Persia – Five Letters From An Eastern Empire drags the reader bodily into the story, immersing him in a world utterly unlike his own and yet tantalisingly familiar.

With everything except the denouement seen through Bohu’s eyes, the story moves inexorably towards a chilling – but once again strangely hilarious – climax.

At just fifty short pages, Five Letters From An Eastern Empire is readable in less than an hour, but it is an hour that will haunt you and bring you back to the East again and again and again.

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