Ciaphas Cain, Rob Petrie, and Unreliable Narrators
What do Dick Van Dyke and Ciaphas Cain have in common?
Who the hell is Ciaphas Cain? Though it’s a terrific name, don’t you think?
And why oh why is there a brussel sprout on my shoulder?
- My Lucky Life in and out of Show Business: A Memoir, by Dick Van Dyke with Todd Gold
- For the Emperor: A Ciaphas Cain Novel by Sandy Mitchell
Why do I read memoirs or biographies? Especially of actors? Mostly because of the story they tell of time and place. Dick Van Dyke was born about the same time as my character, Cid Wymann in Open Wounds, was born yet his life was so different. Dick Van Dyke as he says, was in the right place at the right time to be chosen for some choice roles – from Rob Petrie to the chimney sweep Bert in Mary Poppins. When actors tell their own story I learn about their character from how they portray themselves, how they seem to want to be seen, what they leave in and what they leave out. For example, Van Dyke starts off saying he’s not writing a tell-all with lots of dirt to uncover then tells – in his first bit – how he found out when he was in high school that he was conceived out-of-wedlock. Memoirs are great for teaching me how to not only get inside someones head but how to shade a narrative so it presents (either knowingly or unknowingly) a certain face to the reader.
For the Emperor is a story set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. It’s a memoir translated through a narrator who has edited it and included footnotes and other accounts to balance out the memoirist point of view. The author has done a fascinating thing with Ciaphas Cain, the writer of the memoir – a Commissar (high-ranking Emperor’s man usually working with Imperial Guard units across the galaxy). Cain is an unreliable narrator. Here’s how he starts his narrative:
One of the first things you learn as a commissar is that people are never pleased to see you; something that’s no longer the case where I’m concerned, of course, now that my glorious and undeserved reputation precedes me wherever I go. A good rule of thumb in my younger days, but I’d never found myself staring down death in the eyes of the troopers I was supposed to be inspiring with loyalty to the Emperor before. In my early years as an occasionally loyal minion of his Glorious majesty, I’d faced, or to be more accurate, ran away screaming from, orks, necrons, tyranids, and a severely hacked off daemonhost, just to pick out some of the highlights of my ignominious career. But standing in the mess room, a heartbeat away from being ripped apart by mutinous Guardsmen, was a unique experience, and one that I have no wish to repeat.
And so we are introduced to a character who is heroic in spite of what he says, self-serving, caring, and always trying to surround himself with warm bodies in case the bullets start flying and he needs a shield to protect himself from them. It starts off with perspective, clear voice (amusing also), and action.
The narrator who finds and annotates Cain’s memoir is a colleague of his – only to what degree, we have to wait until the end of the story to find out. Short asides of secondary characters are inserted to fill in information about what is happening in other parts of the city Cain ends up in. They give us further views into Cain’s world, Cain, and the narrator. It leaves me with a fuller picture of what probably happened and keeps me smiling at the number of times Cain would like to (as in a Monty Python movie) run away, but ends up charging forward instead.
Finding new ways to tell a story is like stealing a golden chalice from Smaug’s treasure horde under the Lonely Mountain – satisfying in the dark and even more so in the light of day.