It is every weird girl’s most decadent fantasy – being carried off by the Prince of Darkness and fed caviar in banyas; hunting firebirds with a gang of mythological creatures and living in a citadel made of living skin with fountains of blood in the courtyards; fighting at the Siege of Leningrad and getting your Happily Ever After, with all the Beauty and the Beast trimmings. No wonder Russia and all its culture and history hold me in such thrall. Catherynne Valente’s Deathless is an extension, contorting, turning upside down and back to front-ing of the Slavic tale of Koschei the Deathless. Fairytales aren’t made like this in Blighty.
Torn between two men and a plight to save the world, Marya Morevna is one hell of a lady – fighting in the war between the Tsar of Life and the Tsar of Death, a war that is emblematic of and occurring alongside the battle between the new and old way of life in Stalin’s Russia.
Koschei – her opulent captor-rescuer and master who reigns over the city of Buyan – is the antithetical archetype to the earthy, simple and hardworking Ivan, an army officer who meets the electric Marya when he strays too far from his military camp and who she follows back to Leningrad. With the former it is a poisonous and overpowering marriage of dynamic disequilibrium, one that seems to never die out – fuelled by a terrifying love and passion. Love and passion hard to come by nowadays. With Ivan it is a naïve love, one based on equality. Which one is she destined for?
The legend of Marya might be centuries old, but Marya herself is – whether Valente intended it or not – what it means to be a modern woman: the hard and painful path of growing up, the agony of infatuation and denial, the conflict with those around you, the world around you and (most exhaustingly) with oneself.
We get introduced to a panoply of creatures from Russian folklore – Baba Yaga, Gamayun, Alkonost, Father Frost, leshys, vilas (you might remember them from Harry Potter: Fleur Delacour is half vila), domovoi, rusalka and the dragon Zmey Gorinich. The world of the living and the dead intertwine precipitously and dangerously – raising all sorts of quantum mechanical ideas and cosmological notions of parallel universes.
Valente revives Slavic mythology in a beautiful patchwork that makes you realise where JK Rowling got all her ideas. Read this book if you loved Harry Potter and wished there was an Adult version! Her retelling is so rich in detail, an appending encyclopedia (background reading strongly recommended) is needed to appreciate how much research, imagination and undiluted genius has gone into creating this novel.
Soviet history – Stalinist terror, the siege of Leningrad, the war on the Whites, collective farms and communist ideals – is also brought to life in lurid, colourful and overflowing fairytale proportions, in a world where Stalin is an evil magician who has put a curse on the city of Petersburg so that “no one would be able to tell the truth without lying”.
One minute it as light as a fairytale, the next it is visceral with f-words flying about the place like Marya inside Baba Yaga’s mortar – the next we are reveling in the kind of passionate musings of a Romantic poet – and then into the dark terrain of a particularly truculent Dostoevsky passage.
Deathless brought to mind a whole bookshelf of novels that have been read and revered by many – Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, Gogol’s short story St John’s Eve, Chekhov’s First Love and even the abstract rendering of life during Stalin’s Great Purge as conveyed by Platonov in the Foundation Pit.
And like classics that have gone before it, Deathless is not the easiest of reads – laden and brimming with complex ideas, abstraction, allegories, plot, sub-plot and counter sub-plot. The story slips, slides and shifts underneath you as you grapple to keep up and retain your footing. Its twists and turns and mind befuddling properties makes us feel as if we are in The Matrix – Catherynne Valente must be a genius and then some. For how many geniuses manage to weave a tale that is as intricate as an atom, but which at times flows with the rhythm and beauty of an epic poem, satisfies both girlish daydream, violent sexual fantasy and a craving for Russian history.
Greater than Deathless, is Valente’s spirit and imagination. Who is this incredible woman? Valente’s voice is unplaceable, yet she writes with the soul of a Russian and understands the Slavic psyche to an incredible degree.
The language feels like it has been passed down the ages between generations; like it comes from a far off place – a world very different from this synthetic, frenetic and mundane one we inhabit. A story carved out with the feel of an ancient, implacable legend.
Deathless’ beauty may also be its commercial downfall. It may just be that little but too unique and intoxicating to make it as a bestseller, masterpiece status notwithstanding.
This is not an easy read. But it is a beautiful one, and one worth going the distance for.
The digitally-adept may like the Morevna Project, where you can help create a feature-length anime film version of Koschei the Deathless.