Deathless – Catherynne Valente

First of all, I’d like to point out that Deathless is a beautifully written and brilliant book. The amount of research that went into it is enormous, if not unprecedented. Despite everything I’m going to say below, it’s one of the best books I read in 2011.

Yet, I need to write this.

In many reviews Deathless is called authentic. It’s not. It’s an outsider perspective that inherently cannot be authentic. Of course, the majority of readers would be also outsiders, but nowadays a writer cannot count on this. (If they do, they’d look just as ridiculous as Bardugo.)

I wouldn’t want to discourage outsider writers, but no matter how well you research your book, the insiders will have drastically different reactions to it. No, they won’t be the same. I’m not the only insider out there. There will be other insiders that may disagree with me. (Hint, we don’t think the same.) But there will be a fair number of people asking the same questions.

Outsider perspectives are not necessarily deficient. Sometimes they highlight the issues that the insiders don’t focus on. They can highlight them precisely because the issue maps in our heads don’t match. I’ve realized that soon after moving to America and enrolling into a Sociology 101 class. The class came with a ‘Taking Sides’ book and the first issue incidentally was “Does multiculturalism debase curriculum?” I thought, “Huh?” Now I have a number of choice words about it, but it took me years to get to this point.

Outsider writers usually don’t spend years on site of their research, and as a result their estimate of the issues that their target culture is processing is skewed, out of time, or both. In other words, they are out of sync. The passion of the writer goes one way, the passion of the society is focusing on something else.

Does it mean that writers shouldn’t write about ‘the Others’?

Does it mean that Valente shouldn’t have examined Stalinism?

In Russia (The Soviet Union) Stalinism was a hot topic twice. First, in the end of the 50s, when the cult of Stalin was just dismantled. Second, in the end of the 1980s, right before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when archives were opened and the enormous amount of previously unknown information flooded the media.

In certain aspects Deathless feels like a letter from the late 80s. At that time the news contents revolved around the inhabitants of Yaichka village and hundreds more. Perhaps it was the only time in Russian history when piling up all those people together along with a very strong and passionate anti-stalinist message would have been fitting. Unfortunately, it’s twenty years later and the audience have changed. There are new issues to be passionate about and our history of the XX century is no longer represented by a single huge blob of information.

Nowadays, the typical response to Valente’s enthusiastic take on Stalinism would more likely sound like, “Yeah, as if we haven’t heard EVERYTHING about Stalinism and how horrible it was! Do tell us more.” Taken into account Valente being American, “Is the Cold War on again? Because this Viy business really reminds us about the old headlines about Russia, the Evil Empire.” And finally, “What the hell are Rasputin, Kirov, and Trotskiy DOING in my cornflakes in the first place? How is the assassination of Kirov even relevant? And why are they together?”

At this point an outsider would ask, “Wait a second! What are you talking about? What horrors of Stalinism? What assassination? What Rasputin, Kirov, and Trotskiy? I haven’t noticed any of them! I was just reading this fairy tale…”

Precisely.

So, who do we have in Yaichka? Let’s count.

- Vladimir Iliyich Lenin
– “Nadya” Konstantinovna Krupskaya – his wife
– Josef Stalin
– Leon Trotsky
– Grigoriy Yevseevich Zinoviev
– Alexandr Feyodorovich Kerenskiy
– Georgiy Konstantinovich Zhukov
– Galina Ivanovna – Zhukov’s wife
– Sergei Alexandrovich (should be Mironovich) Kirov
– Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov (tzar)
– Alexandra Fyodorovna aka “Sasha” (tsaritsa) and their children
– Grigoriy Yefimovich Rasputin (using Rasputin in general is almost on a par with using the myth about Anastasiya’s miraculous survival – which is a very bad idea)

Better? Marginally? Not at all? At least now you can google them. Most of these people at some time during the first part to the 20th century (Civil War excluded) held somewhat iconic status. Now these are just names from history books. The controversies regarding their respective roles in history more or less died out somewhere by mid-nineties or earlier. The reason for digging them out now still escapes me. Just because they were iconic figures, doesn’t mean they become folklore figures that would interact in the same space as Marya and KB. There are characters in the Soviet folklore that would fit seamlessly. For instance, Chapaev & Co. These? This is a serious list with real people. Everyone there has lots of baggage. All together they bring the political undercurrents too close to the surface.

That is if you know them.

Really, why are they here? I’m reading a fantasy book, enter Stalin. Coupled with Viy’s total victory by 1952 (1953 was the year of Stalin’s death) I can’t help but see an extremely strong and explicit political message about the horrors of Stalinism. Everything and everyone is Evil, and horrible, and dead.  The land of the zombies. As advertised.

I can’t say I’m against political messages in my fiction, although putting them in fairy tales is somewhat pushing it. But this particular one? I only heard it a few thousands times. Yeah, it bothers me.

On the other hand, I cannot imagine what sense Yaichka would make to someone who doesn’t get the context at all.

Stalinism is a tiny dot on the issue map of an outsider; it’s not a tiny dot on mine. I was hoping to read a love story the way Requires Hate did… BUT unfortunately, I’m stuck with Comrade Stalin.

3 Responses to Deathless – Catherynne Valente

  1. >Stalinism is a tiny dot on the issue map of an outsider; it’s not a tiny dot on mine
    He, thanks for the review! I read it, and enjoyed it, but yeah, it’s definitely because I’m an outsider, and I wouldn’t have recommended it to a Russian friend. I feel much the same about stories that feature the Vietnam War as a backdrop: it’s too loaded for me to read as fiction (or non-fiction, come to think of it). Many people point me to life experiences of refugees, soldiers, etc. because they think I’ll be interested–and every time I have to explain that, no, I can’t read those, because there is too much baggage for me :(

  2. saajanpatel says:

    Interesting review. As a non-Russian I can’t say much about this aspect of the novel. I thought you might be curious about the analysis done on Lingua Fantastika:

    http://www.linguafantastika.com/2011/06/catherynne-m-valente-deathless-part-1/

    • Next Friday says:

      I can say that it’s… um.. well-rounded.

      I deliberately didn’t go into the plot details or characterization, and deliberately waited a few months to review it so that I wouldn’t get sidetracked by the mistakes or details that rubbed me the wrong way. Reading this book was a rollercoaster ride. I asked myself all sorts of questions that would throw me out of it, for instance:

      Why are the street names messed up? – The renaming of Gorokhovaya multiple times followed a very specific timeline. Why doesn’t Marya know what “Cheka” is? – She lived on the same street perhaps three blocks away from it. Why doesn’t KB remember Pushkin’s name? – It’s like forgetting the name of Jesus. (Or is it Valente who’s forgetting, not KB?) How come those families have so many kids? – We’ve just been through major famine. The journey to Buyan perhaps could’ve been handled without caviar, banya, banki, and mustard plasters. Ivan’s story doesn’t hold together very well throughout the whole book. And so on.

      I wish I could come up with a well-rounded reaction, but my mind wouldn’t let me.

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