As delicately phrased as a prose poem, and with moments of real beauty, "Frieze" makes its tale of an 8th-Century Hindu stone carver into a parable that opposes the pride and power of the state to the slow resistances of human life. Flickering between them, unstable and essentially amoral, are intellect and art.
Cecile Pineda has found a contemporary echo in the building of the great temple of Borobudur in Central Java by the prodigal and ephemeral Sailendra dynasty. In her preface, she compares the squeezing of the Javan population, to provide labor for the monument, with the diversion of our contemporary wisdom, arts and resources into building missiles. It is hardly subtle; fortunately, the book itself weaves the message in with great restraint.
"Frieze" takes the form of the stone carver's recollections. At the time of telling, Gopal is old and blind, living in a village, and pursuing, by touch and by virtue of his former greatness, the modest trade of carving funerary decorations.
Gopal came to Java from India, where his skill brought him to the attention of a local potentate. After working on erotic carvings for the royal bedchamber, and then helping to supervise the carvings on the royal temple, he is sent--a favor from one ruler to another--to work on the great Buddhist monument at Borobudur. Despite a promise by the Javanese emissary, his two wives are left behind.
Borobudur is a grandiose imperial project, on the order of the Great Pyramid. Gopal's task, which takes him decades to complete, is to carve 120 panels depicting the life of the young Buddha. He is relatively privileged, at least at first; better off than the 10,000 workers who, building the temple over 80 years, were forcibly taken from their rice fields and made to work for nothing on steadily reduced rations.
An earthquake interrupts them; later, food riots break out. The country is starved for its rulers' self-glorification; the starvation not only slows the work but contributes to the dynasty's eventual overthrow by warriors from the east. The temple is left abandoned.
Gopal, the imperial artist, had been blinded by his employers the moment he finished his panel so that his artistry would never be employed to rival them. He ends his days with his memories, his painfully acquired wisdom, and the companionship of a Javanese village woman who had been the wife of one of his helpers.
Pineda has divided the narration into 120 brief passages--stanzas, almost--corresponding to the panels that Gopal works on. Does the number matter or is it an abstract formalism? Perhaps not and perhaps, but an author has the right to choose her form, and it provides what form is meant to: a challenge and a tension that keeps the writing at a pitch of energy.
The energy is heightened by the quality of the writing. It is beautifully controlled; almost a sculpture in itself, alternately austere and ornamentated. By using brief episodes and by mixing up their time sequence, the author occasionally produces confusion in the reader, but the result is worth it. It gives the feeling of an old man puzzling out his life; and it is in the unforced, quite natural working out of the puzzle that the story's lessons are conveyed without didactic strain.
Using a very few lines, Pineda is able to make vivid a character, a scene, a mood. There is Gopal's first wife, Maya, who retreats into madness after childbirth. In the pleasure of her youth, Maya intoxicates herself and him with the glory of a new dress. We sense it, more than through any description, through her repeated cries of: " 'Gopal, come look. Gopal, look.' "
Later, her liveliness blotted out and sinking into herself, she lies motionless in her darkened room. It is raining, and Gopal moves to the window.
"I opened the shutters a crack. In the flooded fields, birds were returning, clinging precariously to the wisps of stubble. A steady drip fell from the rain-soaked thatch. I could see her, not moving, following the course of the raindrops with her eyes."
At Borobudur, Pineda depicts the imperial overseers as a mixture of intelligence, perception and barely concealed oppressiveness. They are sophisticated, even understanding, but they are in the service of a power that will not hesitate to punish and starve to get its purposes accomplished. In contrast, there is Gopal's Javanese assistant, a man of the people, dragged from the countryside and mourning the rice fields he left behind.
As for Gopal, he is intoxicated by the scope given to his artistry and the chance he has to perform wonders. Only gradually--then suddenly, with his blinding--do the shadows of his real situation close over him.
It takes a lot of talent to make a literary effort of this kind work. How is our attention to be kept upon a parable in such a remote, even precious setting? The dangers are undernourishment, glibness and slathers of exoticism.
Although there are moments of barrenness in "Frieze," and times when Gopal's voice may fail to hold us completely, Pineda has avoided the dangers. "Frieze" succeeds, sometimes to an astonishing degree.