Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what giants or wicked witches are to European culture: the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. Valente's take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century.
Deathless, however, is no d/>,
In the final chapter, Ushanka tells Marya:
“This is Russia and it is 1952. What else would you call hell?”
Russia only nominally won the war. It was utterly devastated by both the Second World War and communism. The war had killed an immense number of people, around 40 million, and left the survivors not much better off than the dead, especially because the economy had been ravaged by the war effort. Russia also refused the economic aid from the USA through the Marshall Plan, which had the goal of resurrecting European economy, yes, but was chiefly a preventing measure against communism.
The reconstruction focused on industry, leaving agriculture and consumer goods behind: the people had very little means of life, of subsistence. On top of this, there was little to no freedom. One could not step outside the boundaries, could not make the slightest remark against the Soviet or its leader without risking imprisonment. The Cult of Personality of Stalin was in place: the picture of Stalin was everywhere, keeping people under his gaze from every factory, school and office wall. The Gulag camps were still very much active; the Great Purge had made a great impression, and it was not restricted to the Party; people were on the lookout for potential threats to the government, even inside their own families. The myth of Pavlik Morozov, the boy who reported his own father to the police for treason, was still fresh in the minds of the people. Artists, writers, poets, historians, scientists even, were repressed and subjected to heavy censorship still, and would be reported to the authorities if they showed any sign of Western influence. Everything was shielded behind the Iron Curtain.
From the final chapter:
“This is Viy’s country, isn’t it?” [Marya] whispered, afraid to say it and make it so. “And the war is over. We lost. In the end, between Germany and the wizard with the mustache in Moscow, the one I told them about all those years ago—the two of them ate us alive. The dead overwhelmed us. While we were counting our ration cards, Buyan and Leningrad and Moscow and everything was shriveling and blowing away.”
The “wizard with the mustache in Moscow” she “told them about all those years ago” is, of course, Joseph Stalin. The scene Marya recalls is from Chapter 9 (Marya speaking):
“But you know, a wizard with black hair and a thick mustache put a curse on Moscow, and Petrograd, too, so that no one would be able to tell the truth without lying. If a novelist wrote a true story about how things really happened, no one would believe him, and he might even be punished for spreading propaganda. But if he wrote a book full of lies about things that could never really happen, with only a few true things hidden in it, well, he would be hailed as a hero of the People, given a seat at a writers’ cafe, served wine and ukha, and not have to pay for any of it. He’d get a salaried summer on the dacha, and be feted. Even given a medal by the wizard with the thick mustache.”
This passage, of course, refers to the Great Purge and what were considered acceptable opinions and ideas to be held by the Party. But, back to the ending:
The final chapter:
“We wander, lost, and you cannot even see the silver on our chests anymore, because all the human world is the Country of Death, and in thrall, and finally, after all this time, we are just like everyone else. We are all dead. All equal. Broken and aimless and believing we are alive. This is Russia and it is 1952. What else would you call hell?”
The spirit of the people is broken, the moral so low that they are as good as dead. They are living in Russia, and it is hell, and it is Viy’s country. Marya looks about herself, sees old Party posters, and feels old, tired, worn, bitter.
Marya, talking to Baba Yaga in the final chapter, and then her answer:
“Is it because Viy rules you? Is that why you will not say my name? Are you afraid of him, like a wizard with a mustache? Why the posters say quiet, quiet, don’t breathe a word? Because if all the world dwells in the Country of the Dead, I should not remember either, and yet I do—though it hurts like starving to do it.”
“I don’t know what you mean. I would never engage in underground, antirevolutionary activities,” purred the crone. “I am only suggesting a thing for you to see, the way an old lady with a sprung back and a greasy little cafe might do when tourists blow through her town. I say nothing; I know nothing; I certainly don’t remember a thing.”
“I would never attend meetings in dank, moldering cellars. I would never importune the character of your colleague, who tells the tale as powerful ears want to hear it. I would never mince about and pantomime a life full of dressmaking and marriages and a successful butcher shop so as not to be caught committing the crime of remembering that anything existed before this new and righteous regime. It’s so much easier when we say, There was never an old world. Everything will now be new forever. I am hurt that you look at me and assume such criminal tendencies in a nice babushka with only your best interests at heart.” […]
“And on my life I would never suggest to you that stories cannot be forgotten in the bone even when a brother or a wizard or a rifle says you must, you must forget, it never happened; there is only this world, as it is now, and there has never been another, can never be any other.”
“Babushka,” Marya said, and she meant it, here, at the end of everything. “I am so tired. I am so finished with it all. How can I live in this? I want to be held by everyone I have loved and told that it is all forgiven, all done, all made well.”
“Tscha! Death is not like that. The redistribution of worlds has made everything equal—magic and cantinas and Yelenas and basements and bread and silver, silver light. Equally dead, equally bound. You will live as you live anywhere. With difficulty, and grief. Yes, you are dead. And I and my family and everyone, always, forever. All dead, like stones. But what does it matter? You still have to go to work in the morning. You still have to live.”
Baba Yaga and Marya know that they are living under a rule, and cannot fight it, because that would be a crime against the government. Even remembering is a crime, and the regime must only be spoken of in terms of praise, because it is “righteous”. Baba Yaga is telling Marya that a resistance is possible, and it’s especially vibrant in the memory of stories: they cannot be forgotten in the bone, they can never go away completely, not even “when a brother or a wizard or a rifle says you must, you must forget, it never happened”. That is a resilience of the mind and the heart that Marya, and every person like her, must cultivate secretly in her heart of hearts, never let go of it, but also pretend they never think of the past, of the stories. All dead, like stones, but they still have to go through the motions and live, with difficulty and grief.
Marya Morevna let her breath go. She made her face blank and unreadable. She looked up at her babushka as though she were a stranger—interesting, perhaps: such a face—but no relation of hers. After all, Marya was so good at games.
So Marya walks away, to keep her private revolution in her heart and her memories, and to keep her face straight, blank, unreadable.
On one level, the meaning of the ending is that Marya is living in Viy’s country, the Country of Death, and everyone is dead, nobody remembers their past life. On another, deeper level, Marya is living in Russia in 1952, and everyone is living, just barely. With difficulty and grief.
I hope this was clear enough! If anybody has other interpretations, please come forward. I would love to hear them.(less) (hide spoiler)]
I name Catherynne Valente an honorary Russian. She has a Russian soul, somehow; otherwise how could she have written this book?!
This is a book about love. And life. Death. War. Loss. Hope. Despair. "Life is like that."
I grew up with these characters - in so many Russian folk tales, in so many Russian movies. The story is always the same. The evil Koschei the Deathle ...more
Life is often full of beauty and joy. But life can also be cruel and painful at times. So it is only natural that the Czar of Life embodies both the wonderful and the terrible aspects of life. As a young girl, Marya Morevna captured the attention of the Czar of Life, the entity she's heard referred to in hushed whispers as Koschei the Deathless. And when Marya became a young woman, Koschei in turn captured her heart. After being whisked away by KoscheiDeathless ...more
Note: I listened to the audio. THE RUSSIAN NAMES WERE BEAUTIFULLY SAID. And the narrator was marvellous. Although I do confess that if I hadn't have listened to the audio I think I would've skimmed a lot. So very glad I did it this way.
+ THE STORY:
“Death, keep off, I am your enemy, and you will not deny me.”
Deathless is one of those books that consumes you at every moment, where it is in every one of your thoughts, and once you read the last word on the last page you say to yourself . . . I think I just read the best book of my life. I can see the crash from here. The hangover to end all hangovers. That is how powerful this book is. Five stars will never be enough for this story.
Deathless is the retelling of the Russian/Slavic folklore of Marya Morevna (link to the folklo ...more
Valente is always worth re-reading IMHO. And other than making a few grand sweeping comments about birds and husbands, I have nothing to add to this marvelous piece of literature. The land of the dead versus the land of life in Russia. Mythology versus societal upheaval. Love, love, love, and none of it innocent.
Just like Russia. ;)
Breathtaking, quintessential Valente, making what might be a fairy tale into a gorge ...more
This is so hard to rate, for this was a stunning and breathtaking novel. Full and rich of a poetic language that leaves you sitting and thinking and forgetting about everything that is around you. It reads like a fairytale. Actually, it is the retelling of an old Russian fairytale, but Valente worked a lot of her own magic to make this precious book such a gemstone.
And by the way, this cover and the tit ...more
Either way, I'm sort of glad that I hadn't reviewed this book directly after I'd read it, because the review would have been a very different one. I'd had some time to dwell on the writing, the story and Valente as a writer and have come to some conclusions that I didn't immediately see when I'd first read ...more
My problems with the book predominantly lie elsewhere, but there is one aspect about this book as an adaptation that I want to address before moving on. In curiosity about the st ...more
I re-read this novel, not because I liked it but because I wanted to recall the details to be able to point out what I couldn't stand.
Funnily enough, this time around the problem of cultural appropriation wasn't as much in the foreground as it was when I read this novel for the first time. I noticed other issues instead, and believe me, there are plenty for the book is not executed well.
My main problem with it still was the use of the Russian folklore in a manner I personally found in ...more
The Publisher Says: Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to European culture: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. But Koschei has never before been seen through the eyes of Catherynne Valente, whose modernized and transformed take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentie ...more
the silence at four a.m.
a warm day at the ocean, salt crusting like dried tears on my face
a glass vodka kept in the freezer, poured over a compote of cucumber in the middle of summer
Refreshing, magical, thoughtful, agonizing; Valente has re-written a Russian fairy tale into a complex love story. It begins:
“In a city by the sea which was once called St. Petersburg, th ...more
Note: The rest of this review has been withdrawn due to the recent changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here.
In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook
Undoubtedly this is one of the most brilliant things I’ve read this year. I’m coming to realize that that statement will probably apply to just about every Catherynne Valente I read. One of the major reasons that I didn’t review this upon finishing it was that I just had no idea how I was going to possibly say anything coherent about something so over the top amazing. HOW? How do I explain that this is one of the most seamless, meaningful unions of fantasy and reality that ...more
“The rapt pupil will be forgiven for assuming the Tsar of Death to be wicked and the Tsar of Life to be virtuous. Let the truth be told: There is no virtue anywhere. Life is sly and unscrupulous, a blackguard, wolfish, sever/>
…is that…is that Alarkling!?
Unfortunately, it is not. Fortunately, it’s another book wit ...more
If a novelist wrote a true story about how things really happened, no one would believe him, and he might even be punished for spreading propaganda. But if he wrote a book full of lies about things that could never really happen, with only a few true things hidden in it, well, he would be hailed as a hero of the People, given a seat at a writers’ cafe, served wine and ukha, and not have to pay for any of it.
Catherynne M. Valente, indeed, has written about things that really happened and hid it, ...more
Seriously, for most of this book, I wanted it to stop. I reminded myself that you don't need a safeword for reading a novel, if you don't want it to go on, you just close the book, see, easy
Only it isn't easy when it's a magnificently written book and you've already lost your heart a little bit to the protagonist, then you're stuck, chained to the wall being whacked with birch switches…
I am reminded that fascism is aesthetic. The folk at the top who have control can only go on believing in the whole shebang because they lo ...more
You humans, you know, whoever built you sewed irony into your sinews.
On the face of it, this seems to be a very simple fairy tale story albeit with astonishingly gorgeous prose. Valante's wordsmithing is art; I think I ended up with over 50 bookmarks. Also, the delicate story within a story within a story is so precise that it could be easy to ignore or miss without the relevant prerequisite knowledge about the history of Russia.
This story does not wander, it is cyclical. It embraces a never ...more
This was such a different read! so unlike anything I've ever read before and it left me breathless. This is the first book by Catherynne that I've had the pleasure of reading but I hope to read her other ones. It is a "hard" read in that it's unusual and a bit complicated but it's truly beautiful. & as someone who reads a lot of YA, it definitely is on another level.
I think you'll greatly enjoy this one if you like folktales, mystical & ...more
“Deathless” is a novel that brought my reading life to a skidding halt. It took me over three weeks to read this text, only because I had no desire to ever pick it up. I am still too young to need a colonoscopy but I thought of scheduling one rather than picking up this novel again. Before you ask the obvious question, I finished it because it was a book club selection and I have read every book since the club’s inception. Got a streak to ke ...more
What did I just read?
I honestly have no idea. Some odd attempt at a hades/persephone retelling... somehow mixed in tandem with Russian history/folklore (which sounds awesome, right?) I have no idea what to make of what I just read though.
The story started off with the appearance of a beautifully written fairytale. It is based off Russian folklore, after all. And then things got weird. And weirder.
Let me say this... I have no doubt this book is ...more
Catherynne Valente is an excellent writer. I can’t complain about the writing style, or the vocabulary, or anything like that. The fault is mine—I don’t know enough about Russian folk tales to properly appreciate this retelling.
What did I like? Th ...more
We enter this magical world in 1918, when the protagonist, Marya, is just 10 years old. And we leave it, in the same place (though everything has changed) in 1952.
Marya lives in a house in Petrograd (which is Leningrad, which is St. Petersburg - the name usually telling you when you are there as the city has been renamed in different periods throughout Russian history ...more
2017 reread: still one of my favourite books of all time!!
First of all, this book was incredibly imaginative and unique. I absolutely love books that centre around some kind of mythology or folklore, and Deathless definitely falls into that category. While the tale of Koschei and Marya Morevna might be a foundation in Russian/Slavic folklore - I had never heard of it before. However, that doesn't matter at all because Catherynne M. ...more
Deathless is a book that denies easy classification into a genre. At first glance it's a fairytale fantasy. At a second its a historical fiction novel with fantasy elements. At another look it perhaps could be suggested to be a magical realism novel. All in all Deathless was a bizarre, quirky and fascinating novel to read.
Deathless, I have been told by a reliable source, is based on Russian mythology and fairytales - their folklore. I heard elsewhere before reading that Valente had embraced Russian-ness in a way that was near un ...more