Monday, October 18, 2010

And the cruelest of those was love

"Let there be light." It is not, after all, so different, beginning a world and beginning a story. Both begin with a word, both are acts of illumination. There is an illumination of a particular kind in The Habitation of the Blessed, the extraordinary new novel by Catherynne M. Valente. It is the illumination of the transience, the corruptibility of stories. Even the stories that last. Even the ones that begin "Once upon a time" or "In the beginning" - the ones we all know to be true.

The Habitation of the Blessed is a story of Prester John, the fabled Christian ruler of a magnificent land in the East, containing the Gates of Alexander and the Fountain of Youth, bounded by the Earthly Paradise. In the twelfth century, a wonder tale in letter form began circulating throughout Europe, telling of this King and his Land, a tale so believable Pope Alexander III replied to Prester John. For half a millenium, tales of Prester John affected the course of European history, inspiring in particular explorers and missionaries.

It is the missionary aspect of the story that gave me such a troubled relationship to Prester John when I would read about him in medieval texts such as Mandeville's Travels, and that is one part of the story that Valente foregrounds in The Habitation of the Blessed. Her John believes that he is called to act as a missionary, to follow in the footsteps of St. Thomas the Apostle, Thomas the Doubter, Thomas the Twin. It is in the nature of a missionary to believe that his story is true, is Truth. But in a world full of marvels, there are many truths, and Valente asks her characters, and her readers, what it means when those truths face each other and converse.

The Habitation of the Blessed is a book that requires its reader to think. To consider what it means to tell a story, to present that story as true, when the slip of a pen changes slippers of fur to slippers of glass, or a disciple's name from Julia to Julius. When a gryphon or a sciopod or a blemmy is transformed from a being to a symbol. When the text has lacunae, whether through a conscious choice on the part of a scribe, or because the pages, plucked like fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, the Tree of Texts, begin to disintegrate as soon as they are touched.

What does it mean to be so sure your story is true, that you seek to rewrite the stories of others? What does it mean when you are rewritten by pride, by faith, or by the cruelest word of all, love? Valente's book wrestles with these questions, and does not offer facile or easy answers. I highly recommend it.

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