I thought that I would be an ideal reader for Catherynne Valente’s Deathless, her 2011 work of magical realism and Russian folklore. This particular brand of fiction is what I read and what I write. I’ve familiar with most of the folk tales and practices on which her work is based. I’ve taken courses on Russian literature and history and toured both Moscow and St. Petersburg extensively. I speak enough Russian to understand the references (not quite puns) in the character and geographic names. But all of this, I’ve found, actually makes me less than an ideal reader for Deathless — my dilettantish dabbling into various parts of Russian culture leaves me equipped with neither of the frameworks I could use to appreciate the novel.
If I weren’t familiar with the source material, I would be more awed by the strangeness of Valente’s work and the striking images she presents — a world of eggs, feathers, huts with chicken legs, galloping pestles, magical villages, and house spirits. Valente casts these elements into beautiful English prose, but they are not her inventions. The banya ritual, with its bizarre lashing by birch branches, is a beloved Russian pastime, typically enjoyed with alcohol and picked victuals. Baba Yaga, Koschei the Deathless, firebirds and mustard plasters (and even the main character, Marya Morevna) are all part of the Russian folk tradition. And if I had absorbed the source material through a lifetime of culture, rather than a few book and college courses and weeks abroad, I could better appreciate Valente’s inversions, re-castings, and transformations. Deathless is a catalog of Russian folk lore stitched into a novel.
The overall plot is impelled by the demands of the fairy tale, not the motivations of the characters, inevitability without agency. Goldilocks has to eat the three bears’ porridge, else she wouldn’t be Goldilocks — she has no choice in the matter. Similarly, Marya Morevna has no choice in her interactions with Koschei the Deathless. They are preordained by centuries of Russian tradition. “Why” or “How” are not a question one can ask of fairy tales, and they doesn’t figure into Valente’s novel, either. It’s better to let the striking images and strong, direct language exist as points and not attempt to resolve them into a coherent outline of a plot.
The real world / Soviet elements of the story aren’t as well fleshed-out as I’d hoped. This is a shame, because they are among the more intriguing ideas. What would Baba Yaga or the Firebird have done at the Siege of Leningrad? The domovoi (house spirits) organizing themselves into soviets and committees is brilliant (they have been too long oppressed by the bourgeois inhabitants), and I’m sorry that this didn’t play a larger role.
Valente’s narrative voice is lush, ornate, packed with adjectives and descriptors, and borrows the cadence of the fairy tale. This is usually powerful, but in certain moods and quantities feels oppressive. The voices of her characters are no different. Characters speak in lush, large, sweeping sentences, proverbially, poetically and axiomatically. This fits their role as archetypes and ideals, not as people:
“‘As you swallow the cow’s tongue, think for a moment about how strange and holy that is, to devour the tongue of another. To steal from it all its power to speak, to low at the moon, to call to its calf. To be worthy of such food you must guard your own words carefully, speaking only the wise and clever ones, lest your tongue end up likewise, on the plate of a rich man.'” (65)
“The stallion snorted, and his breath curled in the cold. ‘Marya Morevna, we are better at this than you are. We can hold two terrible ideas at once in our hearts. Never have your folk delighted us more, been more like family. For a devil, hypocrisy is a parlor game, like charades. Such fun, and when the evening is done we shall be holding our bellies to keep from dying of laughter.'” (148)
“Aleksandra was silent for a long while. The sky got blue and depthless. ‘I seem to remember, in my heart. In a part of my heart locked up behind the farthest, smallest room of my heart. Under that lock is a place with a dirt floor where it is always winter. There I seem to think that someone has died, and no one has helped them. Then I weep so bitterly that horrible flowers grow from my tears.” (304)
There are frequent jumps (temporal and thematic) between sections and between sentences, so that at times, the novel feels non-sequitur. It is cleverer than the reader; it is wiser. It expects the reader to keep up, and I couldn’t always meet the challenge.
Deathless, to me, succeeds as a series of images and fails as a story. It has more in common with the snippets of Akhmatova poetry found throughout: best understood as fragments of some much greater whole.