Sunday, November 2, 2008

latro in the mist

Apologies for the hiatus. Aili has been busy with schoolwork lately, and I've been dealing with a debilitating Windoze issue that has cut down my already pathetic productivity. And truth be told, I am also attempting to kick a serious and somewhat unexpected King's Bounty addiction. If it wasn't for those bastards over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I wouldn't have even known about the damn game.

But something new today. Periodically, people ask silly questions, like, "What's your favorite band?" or "Who's your favorite author?" Silly because for most people of taste and culture, it is a futile endeavor honing in on a penultimate musical or literary influence. A common response is, "It depends." In large part, it depends on what stage in life one references. For example, my answers to those two questions during the latter stages of high school would probably have been Pink Floyd and Orwell. In college, Tool and Marquez. Later, Radiohead & Kundera. Familiar names, all. For the past several years, however, I've been thoroughly taken and often obsessed with the works of Gene Wolfe.

Wolfe is often categorized as a science-fiction author, but the label doesn't do him justice. His science-fiction - such as the award-winning The Book of the New Sun series - is geared towards adults, not teens, and demands a certain work-ethic to read. His fantasy - such as The Wizard Knight - can only be fully appreciated if one possesses a mastery of folklore and mythology. Neil Gaiman has cited him to be among his favorite and most respected authors. In my mind, he certainly ranks as one of the greatest writers, regardless of genre, of our time.

If you wanted a single recommendation to start with, I'd probably suggest the Soldier series - the first two books are compiled in a single volume entitled Latro in the Mist. It is ostensibly a work of historical fiction, set in ancient Greece and based upon actual events that took place in 479 BCE. This is the year that the Persian empire, under the rule of Xerxes, invaded the Greek peninsula and were rebuffed at the famous battles of Thermopylae (source material for Miller's graphic novel, 300), Salamis, and Plataea. Our historical record of these events is drawn almost entirely from the Herodotos' The Histories. Wolfe appropriately dedicates Latro to Herodotos, and I am inspired to read The Histories sometime this winter.

The protagonist, Latro, is a Roman mercenary fighting in the Greco-Persian wars. We meet him as he is recovering from a serious headwound suffered in battle that has left him with with a profound case of amnesia. He remembers nothing of his origins, and little of his own personality. Moreover, he cannot form new memories. He retains a trace of each day's events, but when he wakes each morning he is again a blank slate. He carries a scroll with him, upon which he writes much of what he does and sees. He has trained himself, to a degree, to read this upon waking each morning so that he knows where he is, what he is hoping to accomplish, and who his companions are.

"I must read this each morning when I rise, and write each day before it is too dark; thus it will become a habit. Though I forget that I am to do it, I will do it still." (p. 379)

What makes these novels both brilliant and difficult is that this diary is the text provided to you by Wolfe. In other words, Wolfe reveals the action of the novel through a series of diary entries written by a narrator often ignorant of what he has (or has not) revealed previously. Wolfe is famous for using unreliable narrators, who either lie, fail to provide important narrative details, or forget key events. The reader often learns of these plot-points via transcribed dialogue, usually phrased in the past tense. Thus, you often have to wait a hundred pages or so to figure out what happened exactly at the river in chapter 2. Some might consider this annoying, or trite, but I adore the style. Reading Wolfe is not a passive experience. He forces you to work diligently to piece together the plot and keep track of the protagonist's experiences.

"A black man is with me. He wears the skin of a spotted beast, and his spear is tipped with twisted horn. Sometimes he speaks, but if ever I knew his words, I have forgotten them all. When we met, he asked by signs if I had seen such men as he. I shook my head, and he seemed to understand. He peers at these letters I make with great interest." (p. 23)

Of course, Latro is no ordinary soldier. He is visited regularly by the gods and goddesses of Greece, and has clearly been chosen to follow a hero's fate. One often gets the sense that the pantheon of gods is moving the world around Latro, much like they did for Perseus or Hercules. Latro is noble and strong - an indominatable warrior and instinctive leader. His path shines before him. But it is also clear that some gods and goddesses wish him harm, or at least, hope to make his task (whatever it might be) more difficult.

Wolfe's novels are typically replete with mythological figures, religious events, and symbolic imagery that require careful consideration and interpretation. He rarely hands you plot points on a plate. Thus, when Latro meets a "golden giant" in the temple of the Shining God, you must infer that it is Apollo.

"'For them I am not here,' he said, answering a question I had not asked. His words were fair and smooth, like those of a seller who tells his customer that his good have been reserved for him alone. 'How can that be?' Even as he spoke, the others murmured and nodded, their eyes still on the prophetess.

'Only the solitary may see the gods,' the giant told me. 'For the rest, every god is the Unknown God.'

'Am I alone then?' I asked him.

'Do you behold me?'" (p. 29)

Instead of referring to "Spartans" in the text, Latro speaks of the "Rope-makers." Instead of saying "Xerxes," he says "Great King." It is up to you to figure out what these terms reference, and I often find myself with dictionaries, Bulfinch's, and Wikipedia open as I read Wolfe. The action of Latro is consistent and spellbinding- he journeys across Greece, meets kings & goddesses, befriends the Amazon queen Hippephode (yes, with a single breast), kills a werewolf, becomes enslaved, fights in numerous battles, and even competes in the Olympic Games. So you are willing to work because the story is so good; it is a labor of love to read Gene Wolfe. And after a few months of letting Latro settle, you re-read it and discover something new and wonderful again.

I am sure you know the feeling of trying (and failing) to explain your passion for something to somebody else. Wolfe's work holds a special place on my bookshelves and in my soul, and I dare say I have learned more from him than most teachers I have had. He is worth your while.

Here Latro sits in a temple of the Grain Goddess, waiting for a dream or an omen...

"Thus I am here, sitting with my back against a column and writing these words by the light of the declining sun. I have had a good deal of time to think this afternoon; and it seems to me that more than once I have felt the spirit of a house when I, a stranger, went into that house - though I cannot retrieve from the mist those times or those houses. A temple is the house of the god who dwells there, and so I open myself to this house of the Grain Goddess, hoping to know whether it is friendly to me.

There is nothing - or rather, there is only the sense of age. It is as if I sit with a woman so old she neither knows nor cares whether I am real or only some figment of her disordered mind, a shadow or a ghost. A fly may light upon a rock; but what does the rock, which has seen whole ages since the morning when gods strode from hill to hill, care for a fly, the creature of a summer?" (pp. 144-145)

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