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The Land Across by Gene Wolfe

April 18, 2014 4 comments

The Land Across by Gene Wolfe

The Land Across by Gene Wolfe (http://us.macmillan.com/tor.aspx, 2013) is both literally and metaphorically a weird book. As to the title, a moment’s thought should tell all those of you burdened by a classical education that the Latin for “across” is trans. This book is set in an Eastern European state. The first reference to this particular piece of the map was ultra silvam, i.e. beyond the forest. Following the success of Bram Stoker’s novel, everyone now knows the home of Dracula. From this you will understand this novel is an unpredictable mixture of supernatural thriller, political allegory in a somewhat Kafkaesque mode, mystery, and espionage/secret police adventure. It all begins with our potentially unreliable narrator, an American who writes travel books, seeking entry to a country that’s proving elusive. When he tries to book a flight, he fails to get a seat or the flight is cancelled. He therefore decides to make a more direct approach and takes the train. It seems he crosses the border while he’s asleep for the first he knows of his arrival is his arbitrary arrest for entering without a visa. Removed from the train under arrest, his passport confiscated, this leaves him stranded in one of this country’s slightly unusual cities. He’s commanded to stay in the house of a local couple. If he leaves, the secret police will execute them.

So, at a stroke, our seasoned traveller is ripped untimely from the familiar and dumped in a country where he does not speak the language and does not know the local customs. Even at the best of times, it would be difficult to negotiate a route to escape but when he’s not entirely sure who has his passport nor how to open a dialogue about its return, he’s forced to explore his immediate surroundings to see what comes to light. During this early time, it’s possible he meets a vampire and the wolves he commands. He also discovers an empty house which is associated with a long-missing treasure. Then he’s kidnapped and literally shipped off to the capital city. This brings him into William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) territory in which he makes radio broadcasts as an American. The state in which he’s being held prisoner is a dictatorship and, if an American is critical of the leader, this gives the underground opposition party greater credibility. For these purposes, it doesn’t really matter what he says. Not many in this country speak English. Nor do they have access to any of the technology we take for granted. Even access to telephones is tightly controlled. Think of this as being a country in a kind of time warp. It’s not unlike East Germany but without any of its more obvious virtues. The secret police has almost complete power and is remarkably unaccountable for whatever its operatives do.

Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe

In allegorical terms, we’re supposed to be questioning how a country could regress into such a state. It’s a variation on the Edmund Burke “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Put another way, the only thing standing between a working democracy and a dictatorship is the quality of those who step forward to represent the people in the elections. If you get too many of the “wrong” type, they vote themselves into a more permanent position of power. Fortunately, our hero and forced radio personality is first arrested (again) and then released on condition he helps one of the senior operatives investigate some of the events that have been happening around him. In political terms, this means probing the “opposition” except they may actually be literally “evil”, i.e. able to use dark forces (or, if the dictator is on the dark side, the opposition may be on the side of the light). When it comes to naming and shaming the scapegoats, the dictator has control of the media and can say whatever he likes about those who oppose him. Indeed, when individually and collectively the Church may also be investigating whether society has been possessed and should therefore go through a process of exorcism, the battle-lines take on more significance. It’s at this point the book begins more seriously to conflate a police procedural investigation with a formal supernatural thriller as a hand of glory is discovered.

Although this has moments of obscurity and some of the political subtext is slightly naive, this proves to be one of Wolfe’s more accessible novels as we slowly discover more about this country and its political system. There are some quite pleasing aspects to the investigation itself and the process of deduction is moderately rigorous. I suppose one more cynical responses to this narrative might be to see it as a dream. Our hero falls asleep as the train approaches the border and what happens after that is just the product of his subconscious. This would help explain the sometimes quite arbitrary way in which our narrator skips over events and sometimes refuses to elaborate on the bare bones of description offered. Since no country this backward exists in Europe (North Korea might approximate this level of poverty both in political and material terms) and no-one today seriously believes in vampires or supernatural devices such as a hand of glory, we could safely treat this as an allegory. Yet, there always comes a moment when our narrators wake. This could be when the border guards invade his compartment on the train, or it might be as the last page turns. You should read the book to find out. The Land Across really does hold interest and arrives at an intriguing ending.

For a review of another book by Gene Wolfe see Home Fires.

This book was sent to me for review.

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

I suppose that, in real terms, we must be the people we remember ourselves as being. Memory is the mechanism that supports identity. Supposedly, it’s the past that informs the present. Thus, we only repeat or deny prior decisions if we recall what we did. Should something interfere with our ability to store or recall information, we are diminished as human beings — hence our dread of the creeping loss of self caused by Alzheimer’s disease. I had this not terribly profound insight while reading The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry. As I read through the opening chapters, I was in full retrieval mode, finding myself reminded of previous books and films. Generally, I find this echo phenomenon most active when the stimulus text is rich in ideas. The interest created in the current mind resonates through the information stored in my memory and triggers associations.

The novel is set-up in the style of a detective story where the key source of person-power to serve and protect the community is an Agency. It’s easy to see this work as Kafkaesque because the bureaucracy of this Agency allows reality to be rewritten (and potentially distorted) because Mysteries are passed to the Detectives whose work is then edited by clerks on the fourteenth floor and passed on to Solutions for filing. Because each function is separated by Chinese walls, there’s no way of knowing whether the Detective actually investigated the mystery he or she was given. Nor is there any way of knowing how the clerks shaped the Detective’s reports before passing them on to their final resting place in the Archives. In the end, each part of the Agency will remember what it did but, perhaps, only the clerks see more of the information as they whittle down their Detective’s reports into the case files the Agency will remember.

However, for me, the final resonance is not with Kafka, Se7en for the rain that pours continuously throughout the investigation or more surreal explorations of the interface between dreams and reality. Rather, I am reminded of an almost unknown work from the sixties called Smallcreep’s Day by Peter C. Brown. This is a surreal and somewhat macabre satire on the implicit worthlessness of human existence, particularly as experienced by factory workers. After some sixteen years of curiosity, the eponymous Smallcreep abandons his work station to find out exactly what function his component plays in the finished product. As he journeys through the factory, he comes to recognise the futility of his life. Love and humanity are shredded and replaced by a despairing anomie.

So it is that Unwin, a clerk from the fourteenth floor, finds himself pitched into a journey through a cityscape to find the palindromic Travis Sivart, the Detective whose work he has so meticulously edited over the years. The interesting feature of Unwin’s quest is that he remembers all the details he has edited out of Sivart’s reports. In a sense, he becomes the memory of the Agency in seeking to solve the latest Mystery. So just as the author suggests the “criminals” may rely on ageing elephants to remember important facts, it’s the meticulousness of Unwin’s ability to memorise that will finally build a bridge between the perceived and the actual worlds.

The whole is a metaphorical, not to say allegorical, investigation into the nature of the world we believe ourselves to perceive. For some, a dream can be so vivid, they forget whether the imagined events actually occurred. Did they dream about something that had happened, was happening or would happen? If they remember their dreams, does that make them any more real than the physical experiences of a sleepwalker who gets up, makes breakfast and drives to work, only to wake in the carpark still wearing pyjamas? It’s convenient to believe that we all see the same world and can distinguish fantasy from reality. Indeed, those with the appropriate credentials and the status of psychiatrists make a living out of designating different gradations of mental illness if the perceptual line between the real and the unreal becomes blurred in the minds of their patients. But Jedediah Berry would have us think about this. His novel is populated by a stock of iconic cyphers. Their characters are presented ambivalently, challenging us to decide whether their actions are real or imagined, whether what they do is the product of free will or directed by some Svengali.

For a first novel, this is very good because it contrives to maintain plot momentum without sacrificing the quality of the ideas. There are also odd flashes of a wry sense of humour at work which leavens the mood of the writing. Overall, I think it goes on marginally too long. I confess to finding myself slightly jaded as I approached the end. It also lacks the mordancy of Smallcreep’s Day and ends on too sentimental a note. But, for those among you that enjoy something more cerebral, this is well worth a look.

As an additional note, The Manual of Detection has won the Dashiell Hammett Prize 2010.

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