Archives » Fable

Deathless by Catherynne M Valente

Corsair, 2013, 352p. Reviewed for Interzone 248, Sep-Oct 2013.

Valente here has reworked a traditional Russian folk tale, or perhaps several. Lack of familiarity with this source material may obscure some of its nuances but fear not. In what could have been a dizzying whirl through the unfamiliar – we have to deal not only with the tale itself but with the typically Russian patronymics and diminutives – Valente’s writing, with the occasional exception, is fluid and expressive. Her powers of description and similes can be striking, but her Americanisms stand oddly against the novel’s setting.

The story signals its fantastical elements early on. In a house on a long, thin street during the time St Petersburg became Petrograd, then Leningrad – and the street also changed its name twice – Marya Morevna knows there is magic in the world when she sees a bird fall off a tree – “thump, bash!” – change into a man and ask for the girl in the window. Twice more the same thing happens. (As in fairy tales repetition is a key feature of the novel, though the repetitions may have minor changes.) Each manbird takes away one of her three sisters. She then befriends the domoviye (house imps) who hold soviets behind a door in the stove and tell her Papa Koschei is coming.

Marya regrets missing seeing her bird “thump, bash!” into a man. This is Koschei Bessmertny, Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of life, who nevertheless, in a mechanical vehicle that is also a horse, spirits her away to Buyan, a land where his previous lovers – all called Yelena or Vasilisa – sew soldiers onto cloth and breathe them into life.

In Buyan Koschei’s mother/sister/sometime wife Baba Yaga – relationships there are somewhat involuted – sets Marya tasks to assess her worthiness as a wife for Koschei. These include subduing Baba Yaga’s traditional method of travel, the mortar and pestle. A nice touch during one of these was the scene which is effectively Little Red Riding Hood in reverse. A character Marya befriends in Buyan expresses to her what is perhaps a very Russian sentiment but with universal application, “You will live as you live in any world; with difficulty and grief.” Koschei’s brother Viy, the Tsar of death, turns up uninvited at the marriage and thereafter there will be war between the brothers.

Birds or eggs occur frequently in the text. Marya kills a firebird; in one of her tasks she fetches an egg she believes contains Koschei’s death; a friend turns into a bird; she spends some time in a place named Yaichka which turns out to be an egg; Alkanost, a firebird-like creature, imparts words of wisdom; she is told the world tries to make stories turn out differently – as perfect as an egg.

In a sudden temporal jump we find a human man, Ivan Nikolayevich, wandering into Marya’s life. In the interim she has become one of Koschei’s generals, but the war is going badly. (The war is always going badly.) Koschei is dismayed as Ivans habitually take his wives from him. Marya chides him for his attitude and takes Ivan as her lover, despite his confusion. She tells him, “What passes between married people is incomprehensible to outsiders.”

Whatever her title may be, Valente’s story is not deathless. Escaping the war in Buyan, Marya chooses to return with Ivan to her childhood home and is shocked that a house in Leningrad is painted with characters from her story. With all the fantastical events that have gone before and come after, though, the impact of the German siege of the city and its attendant horrors of starvation and suffering is lessened. The stripping of wallpaper to make bread, its paste to make butter, are not as horrific, not as devastating, as they could be; as they should be. We have not felt, not been shown, enough of the long, slow descent into abjection and desperation that survival there would have entailed. That Koschei has also turned up and is tethered in the basement only adds to the distancing effect.

An interlude in Yaichka features barely disguised versions of Lenin, Stalin, the last Tsar and his family and a priest with whom his wife may (or not) have had a liaison. Two of these have dreams of a war between red and white ants. Russian history hangs heavily.

The human time span of the novel relates to that of the ascendancy of the “wizard in Moscow with the moustache.” There is the necessity to believe, “there has never been another (world)” – “can never be another.” An explicit message is that living under totalitarianism is like death; but a death where, “You still have to go to work in the morning. You still have to live.” But, to use one of Valente’s repetitions, life is like that.

Addendum: The following did not appear in the published review.

For “Americanisms” above read “USianisms.”

Sunk count = 1; plus “off of,” “hung” for hanged, “all of who” – and stalactites might, but stalagmites can not, teeter above your head.

The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories. Edited by John Apostolou and Martin H Greenberg

Barricade Books, 1997, 176 p.

This is what it says on the tin – a book of SF by Japanese authors. Whether this is the best of Japanese Science Fiction I can’t say because my knowledge of Japanese SF is restricted – shamefully, perhaps – to this book. This was one of my main reasons for picking it up and handing over money for its contents. Most SF published is written from either a US, a UK, or other Anglophone perspective or else is European. Japanese culture is so distinctive that Japanese SF may be something other.

The book carries on its cover an encomium from Analog, “BUY IT. Buy it in such quantities that the editors and publisher will bring us more.” Sadly people must not have bought it in quantity as I believe no such follow up ever appeared. Below are potted comments on each story.

The Flood by Kobo Abe, translated by Lane Dunlop.
Narrated in the style of a fable, this story features the mass liquefaction of people and the consequences of that transformation.

Cardboard Box by Ryo Hanmura, translated by David Lewis.
Imagine all the existential pleasures and angst of living as a cardboard box that is aware of itself and its surroundings. The joys of being filled; the emptiness otherwise. You don’t have to. This story does it for you.

Tansu by Ryo Hanmura, translated by Shimizu Mitomi, Joel Dames, Stephen Davis and Grania Davis.
A man is driven to distraction by his large family one by one taking to spending their nights on an old wooden chest.

Bokko-Chan by Shinichi Hoshi, translated by Noriyoshi Saito.
Bokko-Chan is a robot in the form of a beautiful woman, built by a bar owner to increase his trade. Her enigmatic responses lead one customer into folly.

He-y, Come On Ou-t by Shinichi Hoshi, translated by Stanleigh Jones.
After a typhoon a seemingly bottomless hole appears where a shrine had been. The hole becomes a dumping ground for unwanted material of all kinds, nuclear waste, incriminating evidence, compromising diaries. An allegory of the dangers of over-consumption. For where does it all go? This is reminiscent of Ted Chiang’s Tower of Babylon but predates it considerably.

The Road to the Sea by Takashi Ishikawa, translated by Judith Merril and Tetsu Yano.
A boy who has never seen the sea goes in search of it. An old man tells him it is in the sky. He carries on regardless, meeting no-one in his trudge across a desert land. To reveal more would be a spoiler.

The Empty Field by Morio Kita, translated by Kinya Tsuruta and Judith Merril.
Told in a disjointed style with non-standard punctuation and many newly coined compound words this concerns a once green and pleasant field, now empty, where excited children and an old man await the coming – or not – of a flying saucer.

The Savage Mouth by Sakyo Komatsu, translated by Judith Merril.
Using an operating machine a man starts to replace all his body parts with artificial ones. What he does with the removed portions reveals the savage mouth in us all.

Take Your Choice by Sakyo Komatsu, translated by Shiro Tamura and Grania Davis.
A man pays a fortune to choose his future from the three available at a seedy “time travel” shop. Like others before him he chooses the world doomed to destruction. The process is a con but that isn’t the point of the story.

Triceratops by Tensei Kono, translated by David Lewis.
The title rather gives this one away. A father and son see a triceratops on their way home one night and subsequently dinosaurs pop up all over the place. Everyone else seems to ignore the manifestations. To explain the sudden appearances there is mention of dimensional faults and time-lag universes but these seem more of a sop than anything else.

Fnifmum by Tensei Kono, translated by Katsumi Shindo and Grania Davis.
Fnifmum is a creature who grows through time, expanding into the future while contracting more slowly from the past; but he can access all the points along his body. Losing contact with his gene partner in the past he moves to the future and encounters two humanoids. The translation in this story has one awkwardness. What it terms “carbonic acid gas” is more usually known in English as carbon dioxide.

Standing Woman by Yasutaka Tsutsui, translated by David Lewis.
Mammals can be planted in the ground as dog- or catpillars, eventually turning into dog- and cattrees. A writer who has just finished a short story sets out to post it in a manpillar, who used to be a postman, and talks to him/it. Conversations like this are against the law. The writer then goes on to talk to his wife.

The Legend of the Paper Spaceship by Tetsu Yano, translated by Gene van Troyer and Tomoko Oshiro.
An apparently mad woman flies a paper aeroplane while naked. She is Osen, whom all the men of the village come to for sex, even when she has a son. The child, Emon, is burdened with telepathy and eventually blows away the cobwebs in Osen’s mind, discovering the cause of her madness and his inheritance.

Is there anything here that bespeaks difference? That we can point to as Japanese? Well, the style of a lot of the stories tends to parable or fable but that’s not unknown elsewhere. There is a certain distancing, of us being told things rather than shown them but some of this may be due to the filter of translation. What is present is a sense of the slightly altered, the askew, the not-quite-right. By contrast with most US SF the protagonists tend to be reactive or passive rather than proactive. There is also a tendency to take life as being contingent and prone to oddnesses. While no individual story would appear too out of place in any SF anthology, as a whole the collection definitely has a different feel from an Anglophone one.

Redemption In Indigo by Karen Lord

Jo Fletcher Books, 2010, 280p.

 Redemption in Indigo cover

Lord is a Barbadian with a background in Science, English language and Sociology. Out of that she has produced a very readable, literarily aware, fable apparently based on a Senegalese folk-tale.

The narrative takes place in an unspecified country which feels more African than Caribbean. The main character, Paama, a marvellous cook, has left her gluttonous husband and gone back to her parents’ house. When he tries to win her back all sorts of misfortunes befall him due to his shortcomings. Mixed in with this tale is the gift to Paama from the spirits known as djombi of a Chaos Stick which has the effect of making improbable events less so, of enabling unlikely occurrences. There is one mention of quantum fluctuations but it is no more than a sop to a possible scientific explanation. For this is a universe where insects can talk and other-worldly beings like the djombi, twisters and baccou are unremarkable, or at least accepted. A certain djombi, deprived of some of his powers by the others, seeks out Paama to take the Stick and thereby regain them.

A title like Redemption in Indigo does rather suggest someone will undergo a transformation and this indeed takes place but to reveal of whom and why would be a spoiler.
Lord at times knowingly addresses the reader (the tale telling tradition embodied in the book implies a hearer could be the intended audience) or otherwise demonstrates she is in charge of the story she is telling thus lending the novel a literary air.

However you read it, Redemption in Indigo is a fine modern fable.

the Tiger’€™s Wife by Téa Obreht

Phoenix, 2011, 336p (plus extras.)

 The Tiger's Wife cover

Having only recently read this year’s Orange Prize winner I thought I would try last year’s, and very good it was too.

the Tiger’€™s Wife is ostensibly about the life (and death) of the narrator Natalia Stefanovic’€™s grandfather but a recurring motif is Kipling’€™s The Jungle Book which he carries around with him and, as a young girl, enthuses her with. This strand of the novel is bound up with a character called the deathless man whose path crosses her grandfather’s at various times and whose encounters with him he relates to her on occasion. Obreht spaces these throughout the narrative, which is baggy and roams between Natalia’€™s present and her grandfather’€™s past.

The meandering style is artful and allows Obreht to collect together what is in effect a collection of short stories about the various characters whom Natalia and her grandfather encounter in the shape of their histories. This is a mainstream trait which usually has the effect of holding up any plot but Obreht’s writing is so fluid and natural-seeming that any such complaint is rendered otiose. The journey and the steps along it are engaging. The various wars which occurred during the lives of Natalia and her grandfather are never foregrounded but their effects and consequences are never far away.

The deathless man is, as his description suggests, unable to die but he has the ability to tell whether someone else soon will by examining coffee dregs from a cup he carries with him. This magical realist/fabulous element is echoed in the relationship between a deaf mute woman and a tiger who escaped from a zoo after a German bombing raid in 1941 and made his way to the remote mountain area where Natalia’€™s grandfather lived. As a result she becomes called the tiger’s wife. Despite the novel’€™s title, though, she plays a strangely small part in the overall narrative.

As far as the magical realism is concerned Obreht’€™s debt to Gabriel Garcia Marquez in particular is evident not only from the suggested reading at the back but also this quote, Months later, long after the forty days were over, when I had already begun to piece things together, I would still go to sleep hoping that he would find ways into my dreams and tell me something important, which is strongly reminiscent of the opening sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude but at least Obreht’€™s was in Chapter Four where its teasing qualities had to some extent already been earned. The forty days mentioned refers to the wandering of a soul after death, when the deceased’€™s belongings are left untouched for him or her to come back to should they wish.

In the very last part of the novel Obreht seeks to undercut the elements of fable in the relationship between the tiger’€™s wife and the tiger by providing a rational explanation for it. This comes across as ill-judged only in relation to the sure writing touch shown up to then.

Despite being a UK edition the book has Usian usages and spellings – candy, hemorrhage, gotten, epicenter, woollen etc – which seems somehow wrong for a book set in the former Yugoslavia. Obreht also employs that common misuse of epicentre as meaning a focal point. In what is a very worthwhile read indeed the addition of Reading Group Notes at the end including an In Brief a For Discussion and Suggested Further Reading strikes me as crass, though. But I suspect none of that is of Obreht’s instigation.

free hit counter script