As Deathless so often plays with the folktale “rule of three” so, too, does this review, split into three parts. This is part two; part one (“Love in the Time of War,” on the book’s foreground character story) and part three (“Storytelling,” on the book as a story about stories) are best read in sequence.The second time I follow the path set down by Catherynne Valente’s new novel Deathless, what I notice is that it is a story about the struggle for power in shaping a nation, Russia, from before the First World War to after the Second.
This focus on the idea of a nation is rare for Valente. Her past novels have dealt mainly with the household, the city, and then outward to the level of worlds; when she has dealt with nations, they have often been city-states. And to a large degree Deathless does use Marya’s home of St. Petersburg to represent Russia. As St. Petersburg becomes Petrograd and then Leningrad, as Gorokhovaya Street where Marya lives becomes Kommissarskaya Street becomes Dzerzhinskaya Street, we see in these re-namings both an echo of the political changes the nation is going through, and again–as with the changes Marya’s own name undergoes–the way that naming is used by those in power to define the parameters of a narrative, to establish and reify a history of rule.
In a larger sense this illustrates Valente’s tendency to focus on ideas both at a high conceptual level and, simultaneously, at the low level of the individual on the street–while often avoiding a certain middle layer of organizations and institutions. It’s again a question of register; again, and not for the last time, Valente uses the logic of folktales as a tool to isolate just the elements of the world she wants to focus on.
Indeed folktales are among these elements, and the way folktales can represent a nation. It is remarkable how thoroughly Valente populates Deathless with figures of Russian folktale, and how directly their presence identifies the novel’s setting as Russia. She mixes and matches elements from several different versions of the Koschei tale–mainly the version from Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book, along with some cleverly modernized images from Stravinsky’s The Firebird. To these she adds a who’s-who of Russian folktale personages and monsters:
“You can see there a firebird on the door, and Master Grey Wolf on the chimney, and Ivan the Fool scampering over the walls, with Yelena the Bright in his arms, and Baba Yaga running after them, brandishing her spoon. And that’s a leshy, creeping in the garden, and a vila and vodyanoy and a domovoi with a red cap. And there–they’ve put a rusalka near the kitchen window.” Kseniya turned to Marya. “And Koschei the Deathless is there, too, near the cellar. You can see him, painted on the foundation stones.”
That last line feels doubly significant. The deepest tenets of a nation are often embedded in its folktales–folktales can represent the foundation stones of nations. Valente’s catalog of monsters is thus not just there for cultural authenticity; rather, it is a statement of artistic intent, of the argument the book is making about the ties between the Koschei tale and Russia.
Indeed, while Marya is the central figure of Deathless, the novel’s kickstart choice is Koschei’s: his choice to pursue Marya, after hundreds of times choosing a very different type of woman. From the domino of this choice, all others fall. The question of what led Koschei to pursue a different type of bride is unasked and unanswered by the novel, but the implication, I’d suggest, is that it is the changing face of Russia that brings about a corresponding change, and need for change, in Koschei. This introduces the notion that plays out over the rest of the book, of the connection between the state of Russia and the state of the war between Koschei and his brother, between Life and Death.
Subtler but more pervasive: while I would not want to equate Marxism with Russia–other countries are or have been Marxist, and Russia was a particular strain of Marxism–the story of Deathless has conceptual ties to Marxism in that it is not merely a story of conflict, but of conflict that is dialectical. That is, there is a sense in the book’s conflicts–in people and in nations–that ideas are unstable, and that they create their own opposition. And that, as in Marx, that instability, that conflict, is a continual dialogue that drives progress. Valente’s style of writing, which so often encapsulates the performance of an argument, feels very much at home here. Her writing has always incorporated a seeming tension between luxurious language, and stories of those pushed to the economic and social margins of societies. Russia, land of caviar and champagne, land of the proletariat revolution, has a long history with both.
The street-level focus on Marya lets Valente use a minimum of formal description and depiction of the nation–people don’t think too much about what they’re familiar with looks like. That, and the fact that many of Marya’s adult years take place outside of Russia in various magical realms, mean that while the feel of Deathless is often of Russia–in addition to the above, there are matters of weather, recreation, animals, writers, and perseverance by black humor even when the end is never in doubt, which all point to the nation–there’s a universal aspect to the novel as well. Folktales and relationships are good pathways to understanding Russia; but Russia is also a good pathway to understanding folktales and relationships.
There are downsides to Valente’s somewhat distant treatment of the nation, however. For one, Deathless can feel like it is romanticizing the past. It largely dodges what it might have meant to be in the middle class during Russia’s years of revolution and civil war, in the city seat of Lenin’s power. Not only does nothing much happen, but there is no worry that anything might happen, to Marya’s family or their acquaintances. Yet Marya’s middle-class beginnings also mean that Russia’s Revolutionary history is presented as a linear slide downward, whereas I suspect that for large masses of the working class the historical journey was more complex. This sense that the past was better, safer, is further exacerbated by an otherwise excellent sequence where pillars of Russia’s political history, de-clawed, are gathered into a sort of Fletcher Memorial Home: Rasputin harmlessly reenacting his own death for the amusement of Tsarina Alexandra. It’s a wonderful mix of cute and macabre–one can almost see cartoon lil’ Leon and lil’ Joseph, two young brothers fighting again only to make up by dinnertime–but because this setting is our only view of the power figures of pre-Revolutionary Russia, its hazy golden perfection can easily be taken as a statement of the novel’s perspective on that era.
Deathless also feels murky in the ways it relates Russia’s history to the lives and actions of its characters. There’s a promise implicit in that early line that Marya “surmised that love was shaped [like] a treaty between two nations,” between equals, and then saw her surmise proven wrong, that instead love is a battlefield; a promise implicit in the linkage between Koschei and the nation of Russia, between the war with his brother Death and the war for control of Russia. The promise is that the novel will draw interesting parallels between the personal and the national, the interpersonal and the international. For the most part, however, the connections that Valente gives us have the feel more of isolated wordplay and tweaking of the folktale back-story than conceptual payoff. “I befriend your friends; I eat as you eat; I teach you the dialectic!” says Marya to Koschei–but it’s an isolated line, we see no indication that Tsar Koschei (or by then, Marya) care about the dialectic. It is a throwaway morsel of local color. Several lines do work better in capturing the feel of relationships vis-à-vis nations and wartime–a foretelling of Marya’s fate comes to mind–but they, too, are isolated rather than extended metaphors. The problem is not that the statements don’t all cohere into a sensible whole; the parallels between national and personal are too complex for simple coherence. But the hope in any such comparison is that it will be a useful engine for spinning out insights, and that potential feels largely untapped here.
Some of this, I think, is down to an ahistorical aspect to Valente’s narration. The story’s telling ends in 1952, near the end of Stalin’s life and rule. Yet there are flashes of a more contemporary perspective and knowledge. Deathless begins “in a city by the sea which was once called St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, then, much later, St. Petersburg again”–that final name reversion only occurring in 1991. Even more interesting, Valente essentially ignores the creation of the USSR: no mention is made of it whatsoever. This is a novel of Russia, written with an awareness that Russia existed before the USSR and would–does–exist after it. This is an enormous double-edged sword for the book, an enormous gamble on Valente’s part. On the negative side, it cuts down the potential for human insight by transforming statements and actions into a theater of the ridiculous, that which should be ridiculed. When Ivan, having found a job in Leningrad with the Cheka national security bureau, tells Marya that “I am good at arresting. It is an art, you know. The trick is to arrest them before they have done anything wrong”–it is just the sort of buffoonish statement we expect from Ivan, but more than that, it is just the sort of buffoonish statement we in the West expect from a fictional character who believed in the Soviet system. And yet, real people did believe, and Deathless abdicates its chance to say anything about the potential for such belief–as it applies to countries, as it applies to relationships. On the positive side, however, the omission of the USSR in favor of Russia from start to finish makes the novel’s thesis unmistakeable: that history is always a story accompanied by a struggle for point of view; and that some stories can never be wholly suppressed, even on pain of death. And it finally does allow Valente to make her claim of connection between the idea of nation and the idea of the personal. Who is to rule? is a question in both cases that must be asked, cannot be ignored in favor of fantasies of perfect, static equality. The negotiations of power in a relationship don’t end after marriage, not for people who keep learning and growing; the negotiations of power in a nation don’t end after revolution. The best we can do in both, Deathless seems to suggest, is to better understand what it means to rule and to be ruled, and then to have the freedom and the strength to choose when, and to who, we do each.
It is deeply ironic–but apt, considering that both are books that demand to be read in their own particular registers–that Valente’s Deathless and Adam Roberts’s Yellow Blue Tibia actually make an interesting and mutually-rewarding reading pair. Valente’s book chronicles the death of one sort of fantasy–the folkloric cultural identity of Russia–in the wake of another, a modern fantastic narrative of equality and science, in the forty years leading up to the end of the Stalinist era. Roberts’s book in turn begins with the Stalinist era, and deals in that modern narrative’s own death throes forty years later. What both novels suggest is that the question of power in a nation is the question of who gets to define the nation’s narrative.
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