Dianora di Tigana and the Fantastic Passage of Time

I finished Tigana yesterday, and I know why I didn’t before. Why I quit, maybe 3/4 of the way through, and tossed it aside and never picked it up again. I know, too, why I loved the book so much this time through, read to its conclusion:

Dianora.

I was sixteen when I bought this book. I know because of the Connecticut used-bookstore stamp in the front of it. I was at a writers’ workshop in the Berkshires, at a rather unfortunate political moment in my life and an even worse emotional one. I loathed Dianora. I thought her shallow, weak, a slave to her fickle heart and a traitor to everything she should have believed in. She thinks the same of herself, Kay makes clear, but we are supposed to have compassion for her.

I did not.

To bring you up to speed (hello, spoilers): Dianora’s country was destroyed by Brandin of Ygrath, its name taken away and the very knowledge of its existence expunged from the minds of all those save actual people born there, who were left to carry the knowledge of their own destruction with them to their graves. Her father was killed in the war, her brother driven off by his own fury with the soldiers for destroying his land and with himself for being unable to die for it. Her mother is driven to a quiet numbing madness by the loss of everything and dies. Which leaves young Dianora angry and alone and full of plots: she will charm and sleep her way into the conqueror’s harem and there kill him.

Sounded like a plan to me.

So when she shows up, full of hate, and also terror because, hello, court intrigue up the wazoo, and ends up, over the course of years, putting off her plan first to wait until the right moment and then indefinitely, due to the agonizing appearance of a kind of obsession and eventual love for him, well. I was not impressed. When she heaped herself with scorn and guilt I thought yes, well, you want to do something about this? Try offing the guy who destroyed your life. Try that, hmm? And she did not. And I hated her. So much so that when the last section of the book dawns and we are asked to again return our attention to the king’s favorite concubine, I put the book down. I was done with this lady.

Quitting it when I did, then, I missed this:

“We arrive with a past, a history. Families matter. He was a coward and he fled.”

Alessan shook his head; there was still something strained in his expression. “We have to be so careful,” he murmured. “So very careful when we judge them, and what they did in those days. There are reasons why a man with a wife and an infant daughter might choose–other than for himself–to stay with the two of them and try to keep them alive. Oh, my dear, in all these years I have seen so many men and women who went away for their children.”

“…But it was before the Deisa. He left before the battles. Even the one we won.”

Again he shook his head, wincing at the sight of her distress. “Parents and children,” he said, so softly she almost missed the words. “It is so hard; we are so quick to judge.”

Which I, reading this yesterday, found it very possible to read as a gentle rebuke to my younger self and her moral viewpoints hewn from stone.

To Kay’s credit, he doesn’t belabor the point of Brandin’s attractiveness. We are not made to swoon along with Dianora; indeed, we aren’t even shown anything about him that is particularly moving–not his voice or sudden kindness, or muscles or cheekbones or anything like that. He doesn’t demean her that way. She loves him, likely, because, like Scelto, he is a rare flowering of attention and affection and knowledge and wit in a very hostile environment. The fact that he’s the whole reason she’s in that environment–that she came here to kill him–well, that complicates things, but it can’t obliterate her stance toward him. Not completely.

Which is why, at the end, we have that beautiful confluence of emotions. Well, beautifully crafted; honestly it felt like your heart was tied to the back of a car which then dragged it down the road. When we are shown the utmost ends of Brandin’s cruelty–when we are shown that in fact he didn’t kill the Prince of Tigana 20 years ago; in fact he systematically tortured, mutilated and artificially mentally handicapped the man he then forced to serve (through, again, the conveniently all-explanatory means of magic) as a kind of footman for all these years, well, we are horrified. As is Dianora, who is rapidly realizing, in the last moment’s of the Prince’s life and his glance at her which is (of all things!) forgiving, that the only course for her is one that ends. But her simultaneous revelations that 1.) her lover committed a formerly unimaginable act upon her one-time Prince, whom she knew personally growing up, 2.) the flicker of consciousness left to the Prince, in order for him to watch as his body acted against his will all those years, recognized her, what she came to do and what she did instead, and 3.) he forgave her for it–even all these revelations can’t trump the simultaneous love she has for Brandin, now dead by the Prince’s hand. So as she exits, in a very Shakespearean fashion, she tells her loyal eunuch “They should know.” They meaning the Tiganans approaching even then from the west. She wants them to know who the Prince was. She takes off to drown herself, the Tiganans show up, and they ask. The son of the Prince, who has believed his father dead these long years, asks. And the eunuch, Scelto, “was so tired. Tired of grief and blood and pain, of these bitter cycles of revenge. He knew what was going to happen the moment he spoke.” And he says the man dead next to the Prince was no one. A man from the King’s own province bound many years ago, no one important.

And my first reaction was fury. How dare you, Scelto?! I thought. His son is right here asking you who this man was, and you don’t tell him?! It ends with:

His eyes swung slowly down again, away from the hard blue sky and the blue-green sea, past the man at the western edge of the hill, past d’Eymon of Ygrath slumped across the King’s chair with his own blade in his breast, and his gaze came to rest on the two dead men beside each other on the ground, so near that they could have touched had they been alive. He could keep their secret. He could live with it.

And here–oh, to know if Kay knew to do this, or if he had to wrestle with an editor!–we are shown that Scelto is the real hero. Because what could his revelation have caused other than crippling pain to everyone involved? Were they to know how close they’d come to the man they all had loved and thought long dead–and how pathetically little difference in their actions could have brought them there in time, to save him? Or earlier–they had the chance earlier, had they known. They could have done something then. And just to know the torture under which their prince–Alessan’s own father, whose assumed death he spends the entire book weighted down under–had in fact lived, for two decades. It would undo him. It would undo them all. And rather than deliver that blow–his own lady’s blow, which she asked him to deliver for her–Scelto takes it upon himself to bear this secret into his grave. One tiny withholding of grief amidst so many griefs already let fly like arrows to the heart.

I should have finished the book when I was sixteen. I was so close. But, perhaps, I wouldn’t have listened to Alessan’s words about care in judgment; I wouldn’t have felt that Scelto was doing the right thing. I certainly wouldn’t have pitied Dianora’s torn position. Not many years ago I was told by a professor to wait to read Remembrances of Things Past until I was forty or so. Even as he described the heightened ability he’d gained, with age, to appreciate the book I felt my backlash rising: you know nothing of me or of my family, how memory is so important to it and gets torn away generation after generation; you know nothing of how we herd memories like doomed shepherds into protective formations; you know nothing of my ability to appreciate this book about memories lost, decaying, transformed over time! But then, even though I didn’t much like the man, or have much reason for trusting him, I stepped back, and thought perhaps I should wait. True, I had already experienced some of the transmogrification of memories over time that he described, but if I’d already experienced some of that in my twenties, how much more powerful would the reflection of that experience be with twenty more years of it under my belt? So I waited. And am still waiting. Despite my ever-haughty resentment of his presumption about my–our–powers of literary appreciation. Because he might be right.

He certainly would’ve been in regard to my sixteen-year-old self. Maybe at forty I’ll be better.

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