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review 2014-01-24 02:58
Deathless: The Reinvention of Folklore at It's Best
Deathless - Catherynne M. Valente

This book has completely blown me away on two accounts:

First, by just how well written it is. You know it's going to be good when you come across prose like this:

Yes, Marya thought, the smell of woodsmoke and old snow pushing back her long black hair. Magic does that. It wastes you away. Once it grips you by the ear, the real world gets quieter and quieter, until you can hardly hear it at all.

Strangely, while reading the book I tried to constantly come up with phrases to describe it. Hallucinogenic genius? Demonic absurdism? Surreal history? Communist mythology? All meaningless, of course, because nothing of this quality will yield to categorization. And that is why perhaps I couldn't help it—who can resist an impossible challenge?

I've seen some reviewers complain that it's too much—too bewildering, too surreal, too impossible. Yes, at times it's hard to keep up, but if you can't follow the rabbit down the hole, what are you doing here at all?

But really, all you need to know about the writing in this book is that it's incredible. Incredibly assured and more importantly evocative; conjuring up history, ideology, imagery, smells, all and everything at once, with a precision of a mad poet. Yes, even that description sounds meaningless. Everything will until you read it.

Second, by how Russian the book is, despite being written by an American.

I don't care how good your research is. You might read 100 tomes of history, watch 100 Soviet cartoons, learn the language for all I care, but you still won't get some things right. Some obscure idiosyncrasies that exist only in Russian culture and require for you have lived there to know them. And yet, and yet...Catherynne manages to do just that, even if it's in only a few instances. But this is what blows my mind the most. Not the fact that she gets history right. Not the fact that her knowledge of Russian folklore far surpasses mine, even though I have grown up surrounded by these tales. Not even the fact that her expertise in Russian cuisine is outstanding. Although can I talk for a moment, just how outstanding it is? See, I always harbored this conviction that Russian food is although comforting, for the most part unimaginative. And even though I have always known that it's due to the legacy of food shortages during Soviet times, that didn't make me like the food any better. But Catherynne actually manages to make me crave Russian food. Her descriptions of meals are vivid and appetizing and she does not only bring up staples of Russian cuisine that will be familiar to foreigners (caviar, vodka, vareniki and various other dumplings) and natives alike, but also plays around with basic ingredients of the Russian table—beets, turnips, pickles, horseradish, potatoes—to create things that I never tried but somehow sound amazing. Salted beets? Yes, please.

But none of the above accomplishments on Catherynne's part can rival mustard patches.

Yes, mustard patches. Gorchichnitsy, in Russian. My grandmother used to put them on my back whenever I got sick, and it was horrible and smelled atrociously and I am as mystified as to their purpose now as I was in my childhood (yes, it heats up your back, and so?!) It's been so long since I came across those mustard patches, honestly I would not have give them another thought all my life if didn't see them mentioned in this book. I ask again. HOW? How does this person of American upbringing know about this obscure, useless practice that most Russians have long forgotten about?

(Other random and completely ineffective Russian methods of curing colds include - breathing into a pot of boiling eucalyptus water with a towel over your head, sitting with your feet in a bucket of scorching hot water, drinking boiled milk with honey until you retch and begin thinking that death is preferable to this wretched life, and then the cold doesn't seem like such a menace at all—maybe that's the point?)

There was something else too. The mention of mushroom picking. I don't think there is a single person who grew up in Russia and hasn't gone mushroom picking with their parents at some point (and ended up making daring escapes from wild boars in the process). But mushroom picking is definitely more comprehensible than mustard patches. I feel like it's almost a thing other people know about Russians.

My mind stayed blown until I decided to go online and do some research. Ah, so it turns out Catherynne's husband is Russian. Phew, thank you. The world makes sense again.

“That's how you get deathless, volchitsa. Walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove in the world, until even if you vanished, the tale would keep turning, keep playing, like a phonograph, and you'd have to get up again, even with a bullet through your eye, to play your part and say your lines.”

But I don't think it's enough to just know about these obscure practices. I think it's also important to know how to effectively use them in a story so it doesn't seem forced, condescending or scholarly. Every element of Russian culture in this book, from history and  folklore, to cuisine and the language itself, fits into the story seamlessly. Catherynne is a magician in that sense, revealing each facet of Russian culture and Russian history covered in this book at the exact appropriate time; her tricks so light and surreal that it seems inconceivable that human hands created them. The world of Deathless feels effortless, as though it exists completely on it's own, as though it really does exist, despite how outlandish and almost psychedelic it is. That's what I call goddamn good world-building.

I've seen one negative review about this book that really struck me. It was written from someone who has taken interest in Russian culture and has studied the language extensively and traveled to Russia. And I think he mentioned something along the lines of how superficial and insane all the Russian mythology used in this book was. But see, that's the part I love about the book the most. How it just takes all these fairy tales that have grown up with, which have frankly become stale and boring through decades of Soviet interpretation (don't get me wrong I still feel nostalgic about a lot of it—just watched this mini cartoon the other day and shed tears of joy, the songs are actually awesome) and completely reinvents them, taking liberties of course, but without straying too far from the original material. So basically, this book will work on people who have grown up with this mythology because it can simultaneously make one feel nostalgic and newly in love, and on people who probably have no idea about any of this shit and can be awed by all of it for the first time. Anyone in the middle, anyone who sort of knows what's going on but didn't grow up with it, will feel frustrated because they will not get what they are expecting.

 

I do have some criticisms of the book, and there was even a point where it almost lost me (turn of events I really, really did not agree with) but I think the story finds it's footing again by the end and I'm still too impressed by the writing itself to consider this anything short of a masterpiece.

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