I’m not good at nominating favourites. I find the question too complicated to answer so absolutely. For instance, a favourite book? Favourite in what subset of a subset? It’s like comparing apples to aardvarks. But I do have a few authors I’m wholeheartedly absolute about, and one of them is Peter Shaffer, whose death was announced today. I thought I’d dig out this piece as a tribute.
First published at For Books’ Sake, October 2011
We create the infinite: my favourite 3 fictional characters when I was 16
Francisco Pizarro. Dr Martin Dysart. Antonio Salieri.
This trio of unhappy protagonists crossed my desk many years ago in English class. An illiterate Spanish general. A burnt-out psychiatrist. A composer in the Habsburg court. Two are historical, but I met them in fictional form in three dramas by Peter Shaffer – The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus and Amadeus. Disillusioned antiheroes kicking themselves for bad lives, and confronted by startlingly peculiar chances for redemption; perfect for darkly brooding A-level students.
General Francisco Pizarro, leader of the Conquistadors, is on a mission to capture the city of the Incas for the glory of Spain and the Catholic Church. He’s an unusual choice as commander, being the illegitimate son of a pigherd – and illiterate to boot. His whole life has been driven by a need to prove himself, and to his men he’s a hero. But Pizarro sees nothing worthwhile in himself. He’s disgusted by the blood he’s shed and the Catholic faith he has killed for.
His mission to find the Inca city of gold is a work of spite, proof that a pigman can win fame and riches before he dies – but even that will be scant comfort for the fear that needles his soul. But as well as gold, he finds Atahuallpa, god-king of the Incas.
Pizarro is drawn to the dignified, aloof creature. Atahuallpa has absolute belief in his nature as a god, putting to shame the Catholic priests who are hypocritical, brutal and self-serving. The Inca king is almost Pizarro’s twin in circumstance. He was illegitimate and killed his own brother in order to take the kingdom. Self-made and brave, he is, in short, Pizarro himself – but complete.
Pizarro’s men sentence Atahuallpa to death. Pizarro fights to keep him alive, but Atahuallpa senses what his friend needs and promises to rise again if he is executed. With little other choice, Pizarro allows him to be strangled. When the sun rises we watch in fervent hope that it will revive him, but Atahuallpa remains still. The world shrinks back to flesh, blood and murder. A lifetime’s mistakes, gravitationally condensed as tight as a neutron star. We have seen something strange, transforming and ungraspable.
At the age of 16, I’d gobbled a lot of powerful stories but this was the first that descended on a bolt of lightning. Possibly it was because my school was obsessively religious. We were crammed to pass divinity O level, and made to sit it again if we failed. I got the grade as an academic duty but was disappointed with the subject and its blind spots – including the exclusion of all religions beyond Christianity. Then along came this play, where a man who needs a god meets a man who might be one. It turns out they’re nothing but men, but nevertheless we feel the power of the infinite.
At that moment I realised I too had an unshakeable belief – in human beings, what we create and how we scare and heal each other.
And most specially in the artists and writers who could give us such experiences.
Equus followed the same pattern as The Royal Hunt of the Sun. Dr Martin Dysart is another jaded, repressed soul confronted by a passionate, otherwordly innocent. His patient, Alan Strang, has blinded a stable of horses, driven by a profound, primitive worship he has fashioned for himself after a terrifying encounter with a magnificent steed. Dysart’s mission to treat Alan’s delusions and normalise him is how he has sterilised his whole life.
And Antonio Salieri in Amadeus has dedicated himself to composing music. Along comes Mozart – uncouth, rude and effortlessly gifted – and much better at being alive. True to Shaffer form, Salieri destroys him.
Writing this post, I realise how many of those synapses are still smoking. My first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, is about the phenomenon of past-life regression, where you touch into the life you lived before. The romantic in me wants reincarnation to be true, but the scientific half can see reasons why it isn’t. The story is set in the world of classical music, where players seem to be channelling the spirit of the composer. Also, if there was ever any evidence for man being touched by the transcendental infinite, music must be it. I wrote that whole book without realising that Mr Shaffer was secretly at the controls.
Invented gods. Past lives. Future lives. Whatever the explanations, these are wondrous creations, and so is what we do with them. ‘Account for me,’ says Equus’s Dr Dysart, confronting what he’s seen. In my own accounting, I owe a great debt to Mr Shaffer.