Audrey's Reviews > Deathless

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
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Jun 26, 11

bookshelves: fiction, folklore-and-mythology, rossiya, favorites
Read from June 23 to 26, 2011 — I own a copy

It's always fun to read books about Russia - in this case, it gives me a chance to harass my Russian husband about esoteric cultural things he probably hadn't thought about in twenty-five years.
Me: "What's a domovoi?"
Him: "It's a creature that lives in a house, like a spirit."
Me: "There's a committee of domovoi in this book."
Him: "A committee of domovoi?"
Me: "Yes, when the families were kicked out of their houses by Stalin and forced to live in communal apartments in St. Petersburg, the domovoi went with them and formed a domovoi committee. A committee of Soviet domovoi."
Him: "Domovoi don't follow people when they move; domovoi stay with the house."
Me: "So if the house is burned down and the family relocates to a communal apartment in St. Petersburg, the domovoi wouldn't go with them? If all houses have a domovoi, do communal apartment buildings have domovoi too? Lots of them?"
Him: "Why are you asking me these weird questions? Leave me alone!"

Haha.

This isn't merely a re-imagining of Russian folklore. I also can't say this is the easiest book to read. The protagonist, Marya Morevna is inscrutable most of the time and the plotline feels obscured and labyrinthine as Marya. A theme of submission and domination punctuates the novel. An army of creatures from Slavic folklore would appear and disappear. The old world of superstitions is brutally dragged into the new, violent world of the Soviet Union. My cursory knowledge of the story of Koschei the Deathless allowed me to anticipate his inevitable death but that was it. I didn't know what was happening half the time. As soon as I felt I was understanding what was going on, the story would veer in a different direction. And this is supposed to be one of Catherynne Valente's more straight-forward novels! Perhaps the stories and the characters of Deathless would have been less enigmatic to me if I was familiar with Slavic fairy tales and folklore but unfortunately my knowledge of that is somewhat limited. But it certainly didn't limit my appreciation for what I was reading. In some ways, the reading the book felt like listening to a band with achingly beautiful music, with the lead singer singing words in a foreign language. My enjoyment of that music is completely visceral and emotional. Thus, my unfamiliarity with leshys and raskovniks and gamayuns didn't hinder me from savoring every word. And god, there was certainly a lot to savor. Many times I would re-read passages and just let the words wash over me. People who know me are very aware that I'm a huge sucker for written food porn. In Deathless, it's like I can't go fifty pages without wanting to stuff my gob with heavy, stick-to-your-thighs Russian food.

p. 62: The house had made itself ready for dinner. A thick wooden table sparkled with candles and a heat spread: bread and pickled peppers and smoked fish, dumplings and beets in vinegar and brown kasha, mushrooms and thick beef tongue, and blini topped with little black spoonfuls of caviar and cream. Cold vodka sweated in a crystal decanter. Goose stew boiled over the hearth.

p. 64: Koschei cut a thick slice of bread from the loaf. The crust crackled under his knife, and the slice fell, moist and heavy, black as earth. He spread cold, salted butter over it with a sweep of the blade, and scooped caviar onto the butter, a smear of dark eggs against the pale gold cream. He held it out to her, and she shyly reached for it, but he admonished her. And so Marya Morevna sat, silently, as Koschei fed her the bread, and butter, and roe. The taste of it burst in her mouth, the salt and the sea. Tears sprang to her eyes. Her empty belly sang for the thickness of it, the plenty.

"Now the beets, volchitsa. And look at them first, how bloody they are, how crimson, how they leave trails behind them, like wounded things. Sip your vodka, and then bite one of the peppers - see how the vinegar and the vodka mix on your tongue? This is a very marvelous thing. A winter thing, when everything is pickled and preserved under glass. You can taste summer in this mixture, summer boiled down and soaked in brine, mummified, packed with spices to be born again on this table, in this place, in this snow."

But then as if to atone for this gluttony, you have starvation during the siege of Leningrad:

p. 282: Together they pulled down the wallpaper to get at the paste, and then they boiled the wallpaper to make bread. They were all mouth and bone, and their eyes slipped gears whenever they tried to meet. They ate their bread with paisley and flowers on the crust, and smeared paste on it like butter. Bread had never been bread, and butter had never been butter. They could not remember such things.

Gorgeous. Misery had never been more cruel or beautifully written. I will definitely return to this book for re-reading in the future.

Here is a random most excellent passage from p. 119-20:

"Pssst, babushka!" Nasha hissed. "Old lazy slattern! How many babies have you got off your man, hm? Spend your life with your legs open, do you? Just leaves room for the devil to slip in!"
The old woman started and looked around her - right at Naganya - but saw nothing.

"Shame on you, baba! Haven't even got the decency to get up to witchcraft in your old age! Just lie about, why don't you? Screech at brats got from half your neighbors. Plump my pillows! Feed me cherries!"

The old woman shivered, peering hard into the dark.
"Babushka! Put your ankles together for once! What if Christ comes back tonight and the first things he sees are your saggy old bones pissing in the snow like a horse? Straight back to paradise with him, on the double quick, that's what!"

The woman leapt up, drawing her knees together with a dry knocking sound. Naganya dove down and clapped her irons on the old lady's legs, giggling.
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Reading Progress

06/24/2011 page 117
35.0% "the writing is GORGEOUS."

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