“You search for treasure?” Salamon gave me a sorrowful look. “What a shame if you should find it.
“Your quest would be over,” he said. “And then what? As if a fortune could make up for the bother of gaining it. No, no, my lad: the journey is the treasure.”
Just before his death, author Lloyd Alexander completed one final book, The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio, published posthumously in 2007. In many ways, the book is classic Lloyd Alexander: a journey and a quest that does not go quite the way the quester or the reader expects, complete with a poem, stories within stories, wordplay, and a love story that does not go entirely the way that the lovers expect.
Shira, with her practicality and self-confidence, and Carlo, bumbling and ignorant about the world, are much like Alexander’s other protagonists. And Baksheesh fits right into Alexander’s long line of talkative sidekicks who teach the protagonist something about the world while providing jokes for readers. At the same time, The Golden Dream has a certain dream-like, poetic quality that Alexander rarely achieved, a nostalgic meditation on the idea of journeys, stories, and destinations, which perhaps accounts for its sometimes fragile, tenuous quality.
Above all, however, this book is about the importance of the journey, rather than the goal, and finding out that just possibly the goal you sought is not the goal you really wanted.
The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio takes place on an imaginary sea inspired by the real Mediterranean, before shifting to a journey loosely based on the Silk Road. This in turn brings him to multiple cultures and practices, mostly Arabic and Mongol. Carlo, the protagonist, hails from a land that is more or less the equivalent of Italy, but any hint of Western superiority is soon lost when Carlo turns out to be, well, completely incompetent.
Like many of Alexander’s other protagonists, Carlo starts off on a very low note indeed: despised by most of his peers and neighbors and despaired of by his family. With reason: about the first thing he does in the book is to make a major accounting error that costs his uncle a sizeable sum of money. This is the last straw for the uncle, who kicks Carlo out—with a small bag of cash to get him started. By one of those remarkable coincidences that litter children’s books, this all happens at about the same time that Carlo finds a possibly magical map in a possibly magical book, giving him career options beyond accounting.
His family’s low opinions are borne out when Carlo starts off on his journey, and is almost immediately too seasick to work for his passage; almost immediately set upon by various street urchins; tricked into paying too much for his stay at the inn; and apparently robbed of almost everything he possesses by a person whose basic demeanor shrieks “Do Not Trust Me.” As a hero, Carlo does not look too promising.
Fortunately, despite his incompetence, or perhaps because of it, Carlo soon attracts three helpful companions: Baksheesh, a self-proclaimed expert camel-puller; Salamon, a storyteller and wise man seeking a distant sea; and Shira, a woman who occasionally cross-dresses and who has travelled extensively after a horrible kidnapping and later escape. Together, the three manage to correct at least some of Carlo’s major mistakes, and give him the basic information he needs to navigate the different cultures he encounters without getting himself killed.
Carlo’s basic ineptness turns out to be surprisingly helpful as well: more than once his inability to fight, or say the right thing, ends up saving everyone’s lives. This is particularly true in an admittedly not all that believable encounter with a group very loosely based on the Mongols, where said inability to fight leads to the leader of the tribe swearing blood brotherhood with him, which turns out to be helpful later. It’s a version, again, of Alexander’s own not exactly glorious military career, one where he was better off avoiding combat than participating in it.
I said “loosely based,” and this is very true: Carlo may be travelling through a version of our world, but it is decidedly not our world. Not just because the names and places are different, but also languages and cultures and other things. Nearly everyone speaks the same language, for instance, if with slightly different accents, a nod to the near-ubiquity of Arabic in some regions, but a nod that also ignores the existence of other languages. And this is a land of magic, if of a subtle and inexplicable kind: a map that Carlo just happens to find at the right moment and understand at the later right moment; a man who can sell dreams, a painter in an isolated cave able to paint the memories and dreams and fates of complete strangers.
But as Alexander notes, the places—with the possible exception of the distant sea—aren’t really the point. The point is the journey these characters are making, and the changes it is making to all of them except for Salamon, who is already bound to the idea of journey. Don’t worry about where you will end up, Lloyd Alexander urges his readers. Instead, focus on what you are doing to get there. And once you’re there—keep going. Keep dreaming. Keep moving. And if you can do this with someone you love—all the better.
It is a powerful, poetic message from a writer whose own career had not been straightforward, who had by his own account done poorly in business, poorly in the army, and poorly in his first tries at writing before finding success. And a powerful message from a writer who was to die only two weeks after the death of his wife, as if—to perhaps be too poetic, and read too much into it—he did not want to journey without her.
It’s a pity it’s not in a just slightly better book. The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio often has a disjointed, ragged feel to it, and to be honest, even its most humorous moments never lingered in my mind for very long. Most dreams, after all, swiftly leave the memory, and much of this book does feel like a dream of a journey rather than the actual journey itself (the jagged changes from scene to scene, so dreamlike, support this feeling.) Given the book’s title, and a scene where the main characters all buy dreams, this may have been intentional, or it may not have been.
And I’m not sure that I totally buy all of the ending—oh, not Carlo’s decision to continue journeying. The book has done an excellent job of convincing me that he’s not particularly good at anything else. But rather, the group decision not to search for the treasure buried someplace beneath their caravanserai. I get that their home means a lot to them, and that they don’t want it destroyed, and that this treasure may or may not exist. At the same time, this feels rather like Alexander hammering the lesson home that money isn’t everything; home and love is. A lesson kinda flattened when the main characters decide to leave that home just a couple pages later. I couldn’t help but think that a few months after their departure, Kuchik would end up digging up the treasure anyway.
But even lesser Alexander is still worth reading: a fitting final work for an author who had taken his readers on so many fabulous journeys. If you find yourself needing to escape into a dream, you could do worse than picking this one up.
Mari Ness would agree with the message that journeying to your goal is often more important and enjoyable than reaching the actual goal if journeys these days did not so frequently include airplanes, which may be important, but not enjoyable. She lives in central Florida, where she is currently starting to read about the adventures of a certain magical English nanny.