Under the direction of a decaying king an army progresses across a continent, city by city, entering, occupying and wilfully destroying all that is good therein. The narrator of Richard Paul Russo’s “The Dread & Fear of Kings” (1) is a scribe, assistant to the First Minister, a man with growing doubts as to the right of this war. The scribe is charged with recording both the official history and, secretly, the Minister’s personal alternative account questioning the king’s designs.
The French symbolist poet Rimbaud wrote “At dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid cities.” (2) The first line of Russo’s story is “We enter the splendid cities at dawn.” The army he writes of burns, but not with patience. They serve a king who has no patience left. He is dying, but he believes in the “prophecy of the end of times” and that not only is he to fulfil destiny but that he is effecting the prophecy’s completion. Stories say this world was colonised centuries past by starfarers who then moved on with their technology. Prophecy says they will return one day, bringing wonders, miracles and eternal life. This is the king’s desperate design.
For the scribe an encounter with a woman, Kiyoko, in one of the captured cities causes him a shift in attitude from concern at the king’s acts to active opposition. When he moves from passive to active the story takes on a positive note and ends on a note of optimism.”
The Dread and Fear of Kings” is an interesting story. At face value, Russo has set up individual motivations which make sense on their own terms, such that his characters act convincingly and are realistic. The old king may be despicable in his wanton vandalism, but in his own belief he is justified. The Minister remains loyal to his position, whilst simultaneously guilty at the betrayal he enacts and angry at the king for forcing this upon him.
I believe, however, that Richard Paul Russo is writing of events closer to home. Published in 2001, “The Dread and Fear of Kings” can be read as a commentary on the US-led invasions of Iraq and beyond. The names of the cities echo fantasy perhaps, but Kazakh-Ir, Isengol, Marrakkeen and Kutsk also ring with echoes of the Arab world, of the Silk Road and of ancient Persia. The king follows the prophecy of Ishiaua writing in the Levancian chronicles:
“The day will come when the great cities wither. The land will become barren, art and spirit and hope will lie fallow, and the skies themselves will burn day and night with unholy fire. In that time we will return. The blood of the land shall be washed clean, and the profane purified. We shall resurrect the dead, and bring life eternal to the living.”
This is biblical language, and it is easy to see Ishiaua as Isaiah of the Old Testament, or Joshua who fought the battles of Jericho and Gibeon and other mighty cities, and then Levancian referring us to the Levant, the lands at the Eastern end of the Mediterranean, including Israel, Palestine, Syria etc. From there, I would argue, it is but a short step from a mad king obsessed with prophecy and destiny, to a president who justifies his actions with his fundamentalist, apocalyptic brand of Christianity.
Russo wrote before the fall of Saddam Hussein, but in one scene here he is prophetic:When Kazakh-Ir is entered by the army “there were no people out on the streets . . . the residents watched silently from open windows.” Just as they mostly did in Baghdad.
Let us go back to Rimbaud, whose lines not only open this story, but according to Russo (3) were the starting point for his writing it. Taken from the “Farewell” section of “A Season In Hell” the poet talks of how “the vision of justice is God’s delight” compared to “the brutal warfare of men” and asks “forgiveness for nourishing myself with lies . . . and where to find help?” Words which might fall into the conversation the scribe has with the Minister as they delicately broach the issue of assisting the opposition without saying so in so many words.
Pablo Neruda cites these same lines of Rimbaud to assert that the splendid city “will bring light, justice and dignity to all mankind.” (4) Russo too views the splendid cities as emblematic of culture, freedom and civilization. Isengol is described as a city of “great pride and community” whilst Kazakh-Ir is famed for its stained glass. It is this glass which the king orders to be preserved at all costs during the invasion, until when occupation is complete he demands its total, malicious destruction. “Perhaps that will bring them back” he says of the starfarers, demonstrating a lack of understanding of the nature of his faith or of humanity. It is this which forces the Minister to conclude: “I believe the king is destroying this world . . . and all for nothing. For nothing.”
Russo offers up more than observation, but no easy answers. When the scribe is challenged by Kiyoko to act he says:
“But I can’t help you. I am only a scribe.”
Kiyoko shook her head. “Oh no, that won’t do.”
“I only record.”
“You would have me believe . . . that you don’t consider what you hear and see, that you don’t assess and evaluate and make judgements?”
As Rimbaud wrote of “sweet glory as an artist and story teller swept away . . . I’m returned to the soil with a task to pursue”: so Russo’s scribe will lose his exalted position within the King’s inner circle to achieve a greater glory. Neruda too took on this theme: “conscious of our duty as fulfillers . . . faced with the unavoidable task of critical communication.” I believe therefore that in “The Dread and Fear of Kings” Richard Paul Russo has called upon the author and the reader alike to do what must be done so that, in a final line bringing us back to Rimbaud, “If the starfarers ever return, they will find not a world of ruins and death, but a world of courage and hope, of wonder and desire . . . a world of splendour and life.”
If all this seems to be exaggerating the significance of a single line, take the story’s title; “The Dread and Fear of Kings” is a line from Shakespeare. It comes in the middle of Portia’s “the quality of mercy speech” from The Merchant of Venice.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings
But mercy is above this sceptred sway
This king has shown the force of his temporal power, but no mercy. Russo highlights this with descriptions of the needless poisoning of the abundant fish stocks of Salterno, the deliberate destruction of Kazakh-Ir’s beautiful glass; he emphasises mercy with an encounter the scribe has with Kiyoko amongst the dead of Marrakkeen. He sees the body of a woman and fears it is Kiyoko, when he discovers she is alive he is relieved but Kiyoko tells him: “It’s not better that she died rather than me. You should feel just as sick about her needless death as you would feel if it were mine.” Reminded of this need for universal compassion the scribe’s thoughts at the end are for the Minister who has taken his own life. “I felt a vague and distant sense of accomplishment, but that was overwhelmed by thoughts of the First Minister.” Offered the chance to join the rebels the scribe returns to prevent discovery.
In his closing lines Russo returns to Rimbaud, but this time the scribe has changed allegiance: “They enter the splendid cities at dawn . . . Someday, somewhere, they will be stopped.” Just before this, however, comes a line that I read as Richard Paul Russo’s most personal statement in the story:
“I have been a scribe all my adult years–a man of words, not action. I have watched and listened, and recorded the decisions and deeds of other men. I have always stood somewhat apart from the world, and now I was being asked to participate fully in it. Terrifying, but exciting and liberating at the same time.”
This then is “The Dread and Fear of Kings” a story of conscience, of mercy and of the time to act. It is a very timely story.
Quotes taken from these sources:
1. “The Dread & Fear Of Kings” – Richard Paul Russo, SCIFICTION 10.24.2001
2. “A Season In Hell” – Arthur Rimbaud 1873
3. Kiyoko is also a character in the graphic novel “Akira” with the ability to influence people.
4. Richard Paul Russo in correspondence with myself towards an interview as yet unpublished.
5. Pablo Neruda’s Nobel Prize For Literature acceptance speech 1973
6. The Merchant Of Venice – William Shakespeare.
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