Perian de Chirolo, an unemployed actor in the decaying city-state of Malacia, is unaware of the distinction between art and reality and between artifice and genuine creativity. He is also a superficial picaresque hero, swashbuckling his way from bar to bed. In the land of Malacia, which resembles or seems to be based upon a three-dimensional living (but unchanging and always unchanged) G. B. Tiepolo etching, Perian must come to terms with his life, the city in which he lives, and the profession—art—that he practices.
The “original curse” of this enigmatic fantasy land of Malacia, enforced by the city’s Supreme Council, is that it has never changed, must not change, and will never change. Perian and the people with whom he comes in contact are essentially actors living out roles rather than rich, fallible, complex human beings. Things happen in Malacia, to be sure, but they are repetitive events circumscribed by the terms of the nature of the state itself: Men and women make love and go to plays, colorful street scenes lend an apparent richness to the atmosphere of the city, and an enemy quite leisurely lobs a few shells into the city each day, but nothing really happens that has not happened before and will not happen again.
Perian, convinced that he possesses free will and apparently unaware of the multicentury unchanged history of his country, wishes to better himself. He is unemployed and thus a member of the poverty-stricken class of Malacia. He sets out to wed and bed Armida Hoytola, the daughter of a rich citizen, and thus to use her as a stepping-stone to the elite of Malacia. Perian and Armida are both actors in a “zahnoscope” production of an absurd play, Prince Mendicula, or the Joyous Tragedy of the Prince and Patricia and General Gerald and Jemima. The zahnoscope is a recently developed primitive form of camera that requires that the actors remain in the same pose for five minutes. (It is a new invention, thus contravening the rule of unchanging reality.) Like the “dumb show” of the players in Hamlet, the play forces the concept of predestination upon Perian, and he comes to realize, albeit very slowly, that his city-state is running down, that artifice is not reality, and that Malacia is itself a work of art.