The Company, by K.J. Parker
BOOK REVIEW: The Company, by K.J. Parker
Published by Orbit Books, September 2009, ISBN 978-0-316-03853-9
The general public doesn’t know who author K.J. Parker is. The “Meet the Author” page of the newly released paperback edition of The Company simply states that K.J. Parker is a pseudonym and gives a link for the website www.kjparker.com – which merely shows covers of the author’s books, and states that it is “under construction”. There is not even a consensus on whether or not K.J. Parker is male or female. A simple internet search is inconclusive and unsatisfying. I find this lack of expletive extremely appropriate.
The characters that populate The Company are not real. Nor is the land that they inhabit or the history that they move through (hence the “fantasy” categorization). But they are, without a doubt, some of the most carefully constructed characters that I have encountered in many a year of avid reading. Not because they are lavishly described – indeed, just the opposite: because the language in which they are built is so… brutally and carefully realistic. Even the names – at first difficult, reeking of an inate ethnic authenticity – feel rustically real even in their unfamiliarity: Kudei Gaeon, Aidi Proiapsen, Muri Achaiois, Thouridos Alces (known, for reasons left undetermined, as “Fly”), and the central character of Teuche Kunessin. These five men form the core of The Company, specifically, the legendary A Company (of which army, of which war, we don’t know, and it ultimately doesn’t matter), seasoned fighters who lasted years in a role where most survived weeks, if not days.
At the onset of the book, the war is over. The men of A Company, these “Faralia boys” (for they all came from the same nondescript township on the same barren coast), had left the military and returned home, except for Teuche Kunessin. It is Teuche’s return (now a retired general) that sets in motion the main actions of the book – the realization of his dream of the colonization of an abandoned island. But while the preparations and establishment of the colony on the island of Sphoe serves as the major backdrop of the book, it most strongly exists merely as a hingepoint for the glimpsed stories of the men (and women) that led them to that speck of land. Those commingled stories are what truly define our experience with this work.
The land – like the text – is sparse, grim, even bitter. There is no grace here, and very little beauty. The beauty that does exist is only a side note, as if glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. What draws us in to this story is not the typical whodunit or anticipatory plot twist (although those do abound, as they do in life), but the sheer force that exists behind an exquisitely placed lack of romanticism of person or place. The men of A Company are strong, bullish, brutish heroes – but they are not heroic. Teuche is brilliant in his ability to manipulate and simple in his need to do so, but he is neither vile nor admirable in his motivations or actions.
Alternately, the bond (or perhaps bondage?) of friendship is what holds these men together, but it does not necessarily reap redemption. Outside of the tight circle of the Company (and as a part of the Company) there is treachery , and betrayal, and always there is a callousness and hardness that keeps us as readers at arm’s length. But we have to be, or else we would be horrified at the very warp and weave of the land and peoples of this world. And, while actions and reactions are horrific, horror – or even strong emotion – is not a sensationalistic device at play here. Lives are devastated, as a matter of course. Shrug, and move on, else you will be left languishing on a page that no one cares about anymore.
Yet, this is a darkly compelling world. As a reader, you want to know more, you want to understand why these characters act as they do, think as they do. And, as with many good literary works, you have to go on faith at the beginning that you will learn these things because they are not obvious at the onset. Unlike many other works, however, by the time you reach the midpoint of The Company, you realize that your understanding is a moot point – what remains is being caught up in the sheer experience of witnessing the course of these lives, and their eventual unraveling. There is no moral here, there simply is The Company.
Which brings me back to the author. That the author is a non-entity fits. The prose, the story, and the experience of The Company is not, nor should be, contingent on anything except what unfolds on each page. And perhaps, in this day and age of cause and consequence, of machinations and sensory overload, that is exactly what strikes a chord and allows The Company to resonate so deeply.