Deathless, by Catherynne M. Valente

Deathless, by Catherynne M. Valente

Marya Morevna, when you longed to see the world naked and watched for what was hidded behind everyday things, did you know where it would lead you? When you saw the three birds turning into men, did you recognize the structure of your tale? When you learned the date of your death, did it change your way of life?

They say there are only twelve plots, or seven, or three. These contain all stories there are to tell. Perhaps it is true that the human brain has a tendency to find certain patterns, to patch together precisely these stories from the jumble of events, meetings, and random catastrophes and triumphs that life brings. Maybe, but it does not reduce the value of telling the stories, and retelling them again.

In Deathless Catherynne M. Valente lets the Russian folk tale of Marya Morevna play out in parallel with some important decades in the history of St. Petersburg-Petrograd-Leningrad, with revolution and war. We know what will happen, we know at least the outlines of this story -- even if we this time also get to see the house imps joining the Party and forming committees. Most readers will also recognize the structure of the fairy tale, and we understand that certain things have to be. Even if we are not familiar with all the creatures of Russian folk lore, we understand what they mean. There is an inevitability to it all, that partly feels horrible and claustrophobic, partly comforting and secure.

Knowing how it ends rarely makes a story less interesting, often more so. In a fairy tale, we expect certain turns and we know at least roughly where it will lead. Variations of folk tales is nearly a genre in itself, maybe partly because the well known is a secure framework for telling important stories. Also because if the reader can be expected to know the story, she will understand which points are new, or emphasized by the author.

Marya Morevna comes to the Country of Life, becomes the warrior queen, confronts Baba Yaga, travels to the Country of Death. Everything is expected, and everything is new and surprising. The writing is beautiful. The triangle of Marya, Koschei and Ivan becomes a dark comment on love and matrimony: who is to rule? The world we know fades out of focus and back again. The tragedies of Leningrad in the war gets entangled with the struggle against the boundaries of free will.

Life is like that. Life is not like that.