Friday, October 2, 2009
Book: Gene Wolfe - The Book of the New Sun
The Shadow of the Torturer (1980)
The Claw of the Conciliator (1981)
The Sword of the Lictor (1982)
The Citadel of the Autarch (1983)
“It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future. The locked and rusted gate that stood before us, with wisps of river fog threading its spikes like the mountain paths, remains in my mind now as the symbol of my exile. That is why I have begun this account of it with the aftermath of our swim, in which I, the torturer’s apprentice Severian, had so nearly drowned.”
So much has been said and written about these books. I feel I cannot do then justice in this little review. After finishing these books, I felt I was living in a hypnotized state, with Severian’s (or Gene’s) eloquent manner of speaking resounding in my head. It felt like my life was a continuation of Severian’s story and in a way it was so, because the Book of the New Sun’s impact on my mental life was very great for quite a long time.
When I look back on other epics, such as Tolkien’s The Silmarillion or Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, I fail to completely recall all the scenes, but I am left with a vague remembering of great happenings of the size of Wagnerian mythology. The Book of the New Sun awakens this feeling during the reading of the text, because it is up to the reader to tie up the loose ends. Severian, the main character, narrates what has happened to him but he is an unreliable narrator. He, like all of us, interprets and lies to himself. Gene Wolfe plays a sneaky game of words and I didn’t know until halfway through the first novel that I was trapped in it. The rule of the game is to pay attention and to find the grand story behind the story. The plot behind the plot. Thinking back on it, months after finishing the book, I keep on reinterpreting his words and finding clues.
As Wolfe makes Severian say at the end: “Before you assume that I have cheated you, read again”. And so I did, and indeed all the answers are there in casual revelations, only now I read more carefully, new questions arise. This book is meant to be reread multiple times, and every reread feels like a personal resurrection because it makes you feel more intelligent.
So far I haven’t even discussed Gene Wolfe’s mastery over the English language. Severian is one of the most extraordinary characters ever brought to life and he speaks in beautiful sentences. His world is set in the so far distant future that the stars are visible during the day and incomprehensible technology from the past manifests itself as magic. The books are wildly inventive and original but at the same time very sober. I will go further and say that The Book of the New Sun is so much more than speculative fiction. It is a profound meditation upon history, symbolism, religion, philosophy and mythology and perhaps the best thing I have ever read.