Deathless by Catherynne Valente

I keep meaning to come back to this and talk about it, but poor Deathless has suffered by not being problematic in ways that stick in my craw like So Much Pretty, which I needed to write about immediately after finishing it. I didn’t want to write about Deathless except to say “Wow.”

I think I’ve told you that I had a Russian minor in college, even though I never really got the hang of the language. I mean, three years of Russian and I can kind of talk about drinking and milk and possibly some farm animals. So, if you run into any drunken Russian three-year-olds, I should almost be able to keep up. But here are the important things I learned about Russian culture, in no particular order:

1. Russians have memorized a shit-ton of poetry. Maybe not younger folks, but people my parents’ age and older know a shit-ton. When you mention Pushkin to an old Russian, he doesn’t just know the name, like you might know who Shakespeare is, he can recite Pushkin’s poetry for hours (or maybe just what will feel like hours when the only Russian you know is ‘moloko’ ‘vodka’ and ‘corova’ and for some reason, Pushkin didn’t write a lot about drinking vodka and milking cows).

2. Any Russian who lived through World War II is a scary bad ass.

3. ‘Pivo’ is ‘beer’ in Russian and ‘Piva’ is ‘beer’ in Polish. You can thank me the next time you get back from Chicago.

Anyway, part of studying Russian at my college was that you had to at least take a Russian Literature class in translation–so I read Eugene Onegin in English and some Akhmatova and The Master and Margarita (which I have to hope strikes you as “Oh, of course”) and, I think, Crime and Punishment (though I may have read that in another class).

So, all this is kind of a huge preface to my review of Deathless, a book about Russia, specifically during the rise of Communism and the Second World War and the Siege at Leningrad. But it’s also a book about folkloric Russia–Baba Yaga, Koschei The Deathless, the little sprites that live in people’s houses, etc.–and how the folkloric map and the real map intertwine.

The main character is Marya Morevna who becomes the bride of Koschei and who lives through the Siege. But I felt like it was really a kind of beautifully despondent meditation on how people get steamrolled by history, which I know makes it sound utterly depressing. But it’s not. It’s a beautiful book, exquisitely written. You can tell Valente is also a poet, because just at the sentence level, it’s gorgeous. But reading it is like that moment when you’ve been crying and crying and crying and you finally take that cold hiccuping breath that means you’re done.

This book is that cold breath.

I wondered what Russians would make of it, if they’d also feel like it felt just right or if they’d feel like they were hearing about their own home from a stranger.

Valente does some really nice things technique-wise. One, she doesn’t shy away from the kind of weird folkloric trope of the asshole who kidnaps the girl and wins her love, but she doesn’t play it as exactly some kind of troubling, irredeemable rape thing, either. Instead, she does a really nice job of casting it in a kind of D/s dynamic (there’s some light bondage, but it’s all consensual and really gets at what, for some folks, is so cathartic about such encounters). And just when you’re like “Oh, that’s nicely handled,” she comes back over the same ground, in fact, pretty much literally, with different characters in those roles and shows how it’s not the activity but the people doing those things and what they need that makes it work. It’s just a nice bit of insight topped by an even nicer bit of insight.

I think the other thing she does really well–and man, believe me, if I had Valente on my couch, I would be pouring wine in her glass until she spilled for me how she got this so right, because I think, until you read it done, you don’t really know that it’s a possibility, and I am dying to know how she came up with it and then how she executed it so well–is to give a kind of dream-space to the tragedies that hover in the background of the book, so that the reader works through them without being done in by them. What I mean is that it’s impossible to read a book about Russia set in this era and not be thinking of the weight of history, the enormous avalanches of tragedy that kept sweeping over the Russian people.

Valente sprinkles the text liberally with her own translations of Akhmatova’s poetry, invoking, without coming out and beating you over the head with it, Akhmatova’s situation at the time the book is set, and “Requiem” is felt strongly in its absence. (She’s got Pushkin all over the place, too, a testament to his pretty much single-handed salvation of the Russian language as something worthy of respect and capable of great beauty.) But Lenin and Stalin get scant mention. Except, towards the end of the book, there’s this whole elaborate dream-like world in which all these historical larger-than-life characters are set loose to act out their parts, while harming no one.

It’s really something you just have to read for yourself, but it’s almost as if, in rendering them almost folkloric, making them kind of lighter than history, she gives the reader a way to face and acknowledge the larger context of the book and work through it without it breaking the spell of the book.

And, for me, at least, I felt like it gave me a way to understand how people go on in the face of these vast historical forces. Of course it is too much to bear. And yet, for some people, in some instances, you make it through, as if the danger were never that serous, even though, of course, it was. I’m making it sound a lot more trite than it is in the book. Like I said, I’m not sure it’s something you can really talk about. You just have to read it and see if it works for you. But for me, I found it stunning.

So, ha, upon rereading, I feel like I’ve made it out to be a really depressing book, but it’s not. It’s really beautiful and it feels weirdly hopeful at the end. Like, god damn it, something is still going to be beautiful and subversive, even in the darkest of times.

I don’t know. I really liked it.

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5 thoughts on “Deathless by Catherynne Valente

  1. Coble, I think you’d love it, but I’m a little nervous about giving you my unqualified endorsement. It is no sadder than the historical period, but, as you know, the historical period is pretty fucking terrible. There’s no coercive sex or rape, but, like I said, there’s a slight D/s vibe that later gets reversed and some light pleasurable bondage. I didn’t find anything in the book that gave me a “oh my god, sometimes it sucks to be a woman” vibe, though a lot of the book is about the tragedies that come with being human. In many, many ways, this is a fairytale for grown-ups.

    So, yes, I think you’d love it, but you might want to poke around some on the internet to see if it’s to your taste. Her writing is so beautiful and the tropes so old and familiar that I don’t think it’s ruined by knowing what’s going to happen. You’re going to know a lot of what happens just because you know a lot of old folk tales and you know history.

    I will say, though, that I saw one place where the reviewer seemed to interpret Koschei as the villain who kidnaps and torments Marya, and he is, in certain lights, kind of horrid, but understanding him as the villain really misses the point, I think (and must have made the ending really confusing for that reviewer). So, disregard any reviews that make Koschei out to be the villain.

  2. I like your review – you hit upon a lot of points on why I liked the book that I haven’t seen in other reviews, and I believe it was due to your understanding of Russian history & culture. (I am Russian, and yes, it was just right.) If you write about Russia, you cannot escape the history, epic tragedy that’s repeated millions of times on a personal level. To ignore that would be… well, un-Russian. So I loved that Valente didn’t flinch away from it, but incorporated it into the book, weaving her own reality over it, showing how people survive that crushing weight of history, with dignity and loyalty. It was beautiful and very moving. And romantic.

  3. Pingback: PALIMPSEST by Catherynne Valente « Tiny Cat Pants

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