English book report: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

‘Like a throat being cut. Just that fast.’

The first thing I noticed about Deathless was the title. It just stood there and boldly stared at me. What pops into your head when you read such a title? I thought: ‘Should I open it and take a quick peek?’ The title kept staring. I opened the book.

”In a city by the sea which was once called St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, then, much later, St. Petersburg again, there stood a long, thin house on a long, thin street. By a long, thin window, a child in a pale blue dress and pale green slippers waited for a bird to marry her.”

After reading the opening saying my interest was piqued would be a thorough understatement.

The author of Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente, wrote a story based on a Russian fairytale called The Death of Koschei the Deathless or Marya Morevna collected by Alexander Afanasyev  in Narodnye russkie skazki In the original fairytale Koschei, the evil and immortal monster who menaced innocent young girls with his magic, kidnapped Marya from her home in Russia where she lived with her husband Ivan. Of course Ivan played the role of the mighty knight who went on a quest to defeat Koschei and save Marya from his evil claws. Marya was only there to play the role of the damsel in need and Koschei was of course only there to play the role of the evil wizard. In Deathless something similar happens, but not exactly. In this version Ivan is not only good and Koschei is not only bad and Marya is not only there to make Ivan look good. In fact, the story is written from her perspective.

Deathless is about Marya Morevn. She was a girl who lived in a house on Dzerzhinskaya Street until she one day saw a bird turn into a man. That was the day she discovered the magic in the world. Koshei the Deathless took her away from Leningrad, married her and brought her to Buyan, The land of the Tsar of Life, where everything lived. The buildings that were made out of living skin breathed, the fountains sprayed blood and everyone’s death was hidden so they couldn’t die. But it wasn’t really the fairytale Marya thought she was going to live. There was a war with the Tsar of Death and Koschei and Marya struggled with it every day. After realizing she’d had enough she left Koschei and his war. After meeting Ivan she goes back to live in Leningrad. Ivan was a warm and simple  young man. He was the exact opposite of Koschei. Unfortunately for Marya the situation they lived in was not much different from Buyan. There was also a war in Russia. This time the Germans were the enemy. Marya had to live through a war all over again and when Koschei showed up at her doorstep in the middle of the night she couldn’t say no. She still loved him. They were still married. It was not strange to love as much as you could if you only had death, loss and hunger in your life. Marya tried to live with both men, but eventually she had to choose. And she still loved Koschei. Even if he was sometimes cruel. Or mean. She loved him enough to forget all the other women who once warmed his bed. She even forgot about the women who still did, because Koschei enthralled her. Not with his magic, but with his words.

“Oh, I will be cruel to you, Marya Morevna. It will stop your breath, how cruel I can be. But you understand, don’t you? You are clever enough. I am a demanding creature. I am selfish and cruel and extremely unreasonable. But I am your servant. When you starve I will feed you; when you are sick I will tend you. I crawl at your feet; for before your love, your kisses, I am debased. For you alone I will be weak.” 

What I liked most about this book was the lack of rules, common decency and society problems, because those are just silly. I found a war, the problems of marriage, the difficulties of loving someone(s) and even philosophical questions in Deathless. Not bad for a fairy tale, huh?

Valente has a special talent with creating her characters. They were not just some names on a piece of paper. They were three-dimensional. They were alive. I admit that sometimes they were a bit odd. Mad even and hard to understand, but they were real and not unchanging types that were only there to fill up the holes. They made the story. In a lot of books the protagonist is often just one side of the coin, but in reality those people do not exist, do they? There is no black and white. Marya was a likeable character, but she was sometimes also difficult to understand. I didn’t always get why she loved Koschei so much, but sometimes I did.  I think Marya thought about this the same way. Marya was a strong woman who fought a war for her husband and who survived the loss of her friends. She always kept going. I admired that in her. Valente managed to take these characters out of very old stories and turn them into real people. She even managed to make me not only like the least amiable character in Russian Mythology, but also turn her into my favorite. I am of course talking about Baba Yaga.

The old witch who is famous for her children eating and chicken bone munching habits turned out to be just that, but also more. She did eat children and sometimes a husband or two, but she was also a good witch. She helped Marya, she gave her advice and she sometimes acted like she was Marya’s mean and very old grandmother. She was a wise and bitter woman who had her fair share of all the bad things in the world. I got that.

“Husbands lie, Masha. I should know; I’ve eaten my share. That’s lesson one. Lesson number two: among the topics about which a husband is most likely to lie are money, drink, black eyes, political affiliation, and women who squatted on his lap before and after your sweet self.”

I also found Baba Yaga hilarious.

‘’Anyway, I have no patience for innocent girls, unless they have apples in their mouths and are on speaking terms with my soup pot.’’

The beautiful thing about Deathless was the writing. The prose was always just right. Valente could describe everything in an astounding way. She could make her words dance on the pages. The whole story was also one smooth line. It was easy to read.

”And as we watched, the Tsar of Death lifted up his eyelids like skirts and began to dance in the streets of Leningrad.”

She also had her own way of describing the war in Russia in 1941. She didn’t tell you everything in detail. She didn’t need to.

“That night, she burned all the books in the attic for heat. She carried them down, one by one, because December ate up her strength. She lit them in the stove while they all huddled around and put out their hands. Last one in was the Pushkin, and she cried, but without tears, because you cannot have tears without bread.”

She looked out the window because she was afraid that Leningrad was going to start dying, like Buyan did, and she was right, but she was also wrong. Like I told you, nothing had changed yet, except that we could all hear the guns, all the time—first sirens, then guns, and then no sirens anymore because there were so many guns the sirens could not keep up

After reading only a few chapters I quickly fell in love with her writing style. As she would say: ‘Like a throat being cut. Just that fast.’ Unfortunately for me, I did have some issues with the lack of an actual coherent story. Halfway through I started thinking she was just showing off her technique. Her knowledge of Russian mythology was impressive considering she isn’t even Russian, but the story itself was just too much. There are a lot of quotes to be found here, but last time I checked I was reading a book and not a poem.  A plot is very important when you’re writing a story and Valente did not include one. (Maybe she missed this tiny bit of information when she arrived late at her class ‘How to write about chickenhorses and mad wizards 101’?) A plot is the guideline of the author so he/she doesn’t get lost on all of the ideas and characters that start to come up whilst the book is written. Valente was lost. Too much was happening and because of this I could not follow all the spins and turns this novel took.

I read a lot of other books while reading Deathless. I even finished all the bad books on my to-read shelf. The ones where I roll my eyes and vomit incessantly. But why would I do that? Why  would I rather read a bad book than a beautiful one with lots of beautiful words and beautiful characters? I think (and this is just a theory) it’s because I got exhausted after reading more than one or two chapters. These chapters were like pieces of chocolate. A few pieces are amazing, but after your third piece you start to get sick.

Don’t get me wrong, I still liked it. I liked it, but it wasn’t enough for me to keep reading it. Sometimes I did not have a clue of what was happening. For example that part when Marya was living in Yaicka. Is the reader not supposed to know if her main character is pregnant? Or when she delivers a child? Or if the child is even alive? I know strange. I like strange. Strange wakes up the brain cells.  But a world that resides in an egg is a bit too farfetched, even for me. Especially when this abnormality is not explained. (Okay. There was an explanation, but it did not really help. Valente tried to convince me that the egg was the child of Koschei and the Tsar of Birds. Wow. Writing it down is even more weird that thinking it.) Some readers might find this sort of abnormalities interesting, but Valente could have tried to make this world a bit more real. You know, a few laws of nature would have been nice. Those where a man can not have a child with a manbird.

My point is: the fairytale theme was just too present. It leaked in everywhere. I know she based it on a fairytale, but did that necessarily mean it had to be everywhere?One example:

A red bird came for Marya’s red dress and Ivan gave it to the red bird. The next day another bird came for her rifle and Ivan gave it to the bird. The next day another bird came for her silver brush and eventually Ivan gave it to the brown bird.

Valente sometimes used an entire chapter for this. I can’t say I really enjoyed it. When you’re really into the story this kind of thing can pull you out.

In short: Deathless was an interesting story that was presented with very good writing. Maybe it wasn’t so smart of Valente to really go into the fairytale genre, but I did really fall in love with her writing and her characters. So much so that the egg could be forgiven. I do confess, I could not get around the fact that there was no plot. This doesn’t mean I don’t want to read Valente’s other work. Who knows what those books hide between their pages? Because maybe it was me. Maybe I am not the kind of girl who still likes her fairy tales.

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