Tuesday, October 26, 2010

K.J. Parker - The Folding Knife

It would be easy to mistake The Folding Knife for an epic. It seems to have all the usual trademarks: the detailed secondary world, the wars and affairs of state, the positions of leadership. And yet, to call The Folding Knife an epic would be a grievous mistake. This is the story of one man, a man both great and terrible, at once an idealist and a nihilist, somewhere between benevolent leader and tyrant.

The Folding Knife is the tale of Basso’s life and term as First Citizen of the Republic of Vesani. Every word of this book is biased, the entire narrative shaped by Basso in the same way that he shaped the world. Even when Basso is offstage, this is unequivocally his story, and that is reflected in every aspect of the book down to its diction. Basso’s mother and Basso’s father are referred to only by their relationship to him, their tags being Basso’s mother (p. 5) and the boy’s (or Basso's) father (p. 11) respectively. In the same manner, Basso’s opponents are simply referred, save in exceptional cases, as either "the Opposition" or "the Optimates" (p. 250).

The books scenes have a slippery quality, sometimes advancing with a meticulous attention to detail and sometimes leaping forward by years. This is the story of a man’s life, and, as such, it is a messy affair with strands that meander and seeming dead ends everywhere. There is no approved guide to Basso’s life, no single authorially proposed path or meaning. Events that seem pivotal fade and recede, while minutia often steps to the fore of Basso’s mind and existence.

It is established from the opening pages of the novel that this is a tragedy. We open with Basso after his fall, looking back on the mistake that he believes led to every one of his failures, and so we know that he cannot succeed. But he does, again and again. The Folding Knife is the story of a great man, and his every success is all the more powerful because we know that the odds are stacked against him, that one day he is plans will all implode, that his creations will fall, no matter how sound their foundations now seem to us. Basso says to his wife: Destiny is the enemy, (p. 203) and that characterizes the entire outlook of The Folding Knife. The reader is gripped by every one of his schemes, knowing that one has to fail and yet so enraptured in the legacy of the man that believing that one will is impossible.

Towards the beginning of the book, Basso gets married. It is the first time that expectations, appearances, and actions fail to match up with reality. Basso gets married, yet everything remains hollow: This wasn’t love. He was prepared to accept that, in extreme cases, it was marriage, but only after half a century of egregious incompatibility. (p. 33-34) It is still early for Basso, however, and he convinces himself that things will change with time.

Such a thing, however, is not to be, for the turning point of Basso’s life, the “one mistake” of the back cover, comes shortly after his wedding. Basso walks in on his wife and his sister’s husband together. This moment – like most of the moments in The Folding Knife that, by all respects, should have been visceral – is instead marked first by confusion and then by a terrible, dreamlike decisiveness. Attacked by his sister’s lover, Basso kills for the first time with his folding knife. Then, stepping forward in a moment devoid of emotion, he kills his wife.

Basso’s killing determines everything that comes afterwards. The murders are the cementing of that hollowness that plagued his marriage, forever marking the separation between action and intent, reality and perception. Outwardly, Basso is the same man afterwards. Inwardly, however, Basso’s ability to empathize withers away. In his life, Basso is only to love two people, and both of those relationships are a direct result of his actions toward them, his need to redeem himself in the eyes of his sister and her son stemming directly from the murder of their father/husband. As for every facet of Basso’s life that does not revolve around this one moment, it fade entirely in his estimation, leaving him as a man of untold successes that he cares nothing of and a single failure that haunts every aspect of his being:

And it occurred to him that in his life he’d done many things that other people considered admirable, brilliant, wonderful; all of which he placed little value on, just as the conjuror knows he hasn’t really performed magic, no matter what the audience may think. There was just one admirable thing he’d done – one honest things – and the only other person who’d ever know about it hated him enough to want to see him dead . And therein, it pleased him to think, lies the true magnificence of Basso the Magnifying; his one honest thing, his only failure, the one thing he wanted and told himself he couldn’t have. (p. 363)

The dichotomy of perception and reality is exemplified when a plague strikes the Republic. Emergency measures are enacted, but are, of course, unhelpful. Desperate, Basso and his advisors try and figure out what is causing the plague. Their first guess is that it’s airborne, and they evacuate huge sections of the city. Their second guess is that it’s carried in the water of the city, so they divert as much water they can from a nearby river into the city’s cisterns. Eventually, however, it turns out that the plague was caused by tainted beef. All of Basso’s actions were in vain, and the only reason the entirety of the Republic didn’t perish was luck. And yet, the people love Basso. The citizenry’s relief at his decisive action was so great that not even the pointlessness of said action could shrink their gratitude.

The majority of Basso’s actions are the opposite, though. Time after time, Basso does something incredible for the people of the Republic for the sole reason that it benefits him. As a result, the core of The Folding Knife is the question of whether good can come from greed, of whether the intention matters: "A hundred of my predecessors tried to make the world a better place…They tried so hard, we’ve had poverty, economic collapse, and so many wars I lose count. My approach is, I try and make money for myself in a way that benefits the Republic." (p. 192) Basso is, without a doubt, a selfish man. He crushes his political opponents without remorse, and he manipulates the very state that he represents in order to escalate his own profits to absurd heights.

Still, the good that he does while in office is almost immeasurable. His second wife accuses him of only caring about morality, about great deeds like ending poverty and starvation, as a fringe benefit, (p. 193), but, no matter whether it was the primary intention, doesn’t the act still count? Can the good of increasing the purity of Vesani gold, bringing a veritable flood of foreign money to the city, be negated by the fact that Basso prospered more than anyone else? Can the Enfranchisement Act, a measure that finally grants citizenship to the various immigrants that make up so much of Vesani life, be really diminished because its primary aims were to allow Basso to marry who he wanted and to insure a massive influx of newly enfranchised voters that would never be loyal to anyone but him?

The Folding Knife isn’t devoid of the occasional blemish. The thematic continuity that runs from Basso’s murder to his downfall is powerful, but, as the novel reaches its climax, Parker tries to make Basso’s moral failing his material failing as well. Unfortunately, this attempt is not only unnecessary but actually detrimental to what came before. In her need to tie everything together so tightly, things that were once triumphs or disasters of chance or Basso’s own doing become a part of a hackneyed revenge plot that requires logic and established character to bend over backwards for its accommodation.

Furthermore, the immense presence of Basso shoves everything that he’s not interested in into obscurity. The Opposition is never developed, never really given a face, never anything more than a bumbling foe for Basso to run rings around. More importantly, the very sister that is the crux of Basso’s story is so spiteful that she becomes hard to take seriously as a threat. Yes, Parker tries to humanize her with our sympathy, but Basso’s picture of his sister is so egregiously off that the reader never confuses it with the reality, and we’re left with an antagonist both one dimensional and obvious.

Still, it takes a talented author to tell you exactly what she means to do, to then do exactly that, and to have it be every bit as affecting as you could’ve dreamed. Yes, Parker does overplay her hand in the end, but the emotional impact of Basso’s life and disgrace, and the intellectual impact of the questions and paradoxes that Parker raises, render The Folding Knife an excellent read.


  1. I tried this book, and really just could not enjoy it, even as I read it. I understand that it's a genuflection by Basso on his past, but Basso is so personally bland I couldn't bring myself to care about him. The scene where he kills his wife and wife's lover was about the flattest adultery-leading-to-murder scene I've ever read.

    You brought up Basso's sister, and that's one of the other problems. It's not just her that's a one-dimensional, spiteful bitch in the story - virtually every woman in the story is either a bitch, stupid, or both. Even his second wife at the end.

  2. I'll agree with the second wife at the end. She went from a well developed character to a caricature in about two sentences. As to Basso's blandness, I guess that's just a matter of taste.