June 2014

Sessily Watt

Facing the Raven's Eye

Reading Empire: A Stranger in Olondria

One of the greatest gifts a novel can give a reader is summed up by the anxiety of watching the pages yet to be read thin to nothing. Jevick, the narrator of Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria, describes this moment near the end of the novel, when his own narrative is narrowing into its conclusion. You try to read more slowly, Jevick says, to put off that end, but it must come, and then you close the book and look up. "Someone comes to ask what you will have for dinner, or two small boys run past you, wildly shouting; or else it's merely a breeze blowing a curtain, the white unfurling into a room, brushing the papers on a desk. It is the sound of the world. But to you, the reader, it is only a silence, untenanted and desolate." The book has ended. The life you were living along with your own -- the people you knew, if only within the confines of the pages and your mind -- are gone. You return to yourself. Jevick describes this as a sad moment, but the sadness is a reflection of the preceding joy found in being transported by reading.

As I noted in April's column, not everyone finds pleasure in the same kind of reading. Not everyone wants to be transported. Reading can also be a method for examining what is directly in front of and around you. But I, at least, find myself most emotionally attached to those books that transport me beyond myself, into another world, another mind, another way of living. George Eliot once wrote to a friend, "I try to delight in the sunshine that will be when I shall never see it any more. And I think it is possible for this sort of impersonal life to attain great intensity, possible for us to gain much more independence, than is usually believed, of the small bundle of acts that make our own personality." This is an essential part of what it means to read and write for me. I want to be transported into a world that extends beyond myself, even -- or especially -- a world that does or will or could exist without me in it.

This same impulse may have driven European explorers beyond what they considered civilization, fueled the studies of early anthropologists amid tribal cultures, and supported hundreds of years of travelogues. It in those examples, extending from the founding of empires to their contemporary effects, that we can more easily see the bad that can arise from what initially seems to be a wholly selfless urge. (I will leave the arguments about whether selfless and good are synonymous for another day.) Travelers, explorers, anthropologists, readers, and others carry with them a desire for discovery, of going beyond the known and the familiar, but in doing so they were and are often thrown back on themselves, stomping over and simplifying what is different. Edward Said describes this in Orientalism and his related work: Western cultures' descriptions and categorization of "the Orient" say more about the West than they do about what is being described. To make the West appear strong, the Orient is described as weak. To make the West appear rational, the Orient is described as ruled by emotion. And so forth.

I don't think it is a coincidence that the first quarter of A Stranger in Olondria reads a bit like a travelogue. Jevick, our narrator, is the son of a pepper merchant in the Tea Islands, some distance by ship from Olondria. His father returns from trading in that far off country each year rich and happy, while his mother refers to it, fearfully, as the Ghost Country. One year, though, Jevick's father brings home an Olondrian tutor, who sparks a love of reading in young Jevick and a passion to see that far off country. Eventually, he has his opportunity, and travels there by ship.

Much like a certain flavor of travelogue, Jevick's views of Olondria are heavily romantic. He says, of his early reading, that his "dreams were filled with battles, haunted woods, and heroic voyages, and the Drevedi, the Olondrian vampires whose wings are like indigo." He describes the city of Bain as "the Gilded House, the Incomparable City," undoubtedly quoting from his books, but also undoubtedly believing what he quotes. For him, at least at first, Olondria is nothing but a country of books and of beauty. But we shouldn't confuse narrator with author, as Samatar is careful to lace Jevick's descriptions with hints of the gaps and hidden doors in his knowledge. The opening paragraph immediately marks his ignorance: "As I was a stranger in Olondria, I knew nothing of the splendor of its coasts, nor of Bain, the Harbor City, whose lights and colors spill into the ocean like a cataract of roses." The paragraph goes on to describe other unknowns, both people and places, establishing a distance between our narrator and the country we are to discover with him. Even once he begins to learn of Olondria through the books of his tutor, that knowledge is not comprehensive or even practical. The books the tutor, Lunre, brings to the Tea Islands are chosen because they are beloved. Jevick tells us, "What I knew, what I learned, was the map of a heart, of the longings of Lunre of Bain: I walked in the forests of his desire and bathed in the sea of his dreams." He learns the Olondria of the books that Lunre loved and little more beyond that.

Jevick's limitations may be as romantic as an explorer's, but they are not the same. The process of Orientalism that Said describes is heavily influenced by the distribution of relative power. We may all have to work hard to move beyond narratives that tell us more about ourselves than anyone else, but the narratives of those with power can drown out those without power, making the powerful even more prone to falling into familiar and simplistic stories. While Jevick's position as the son of a pepper merchant, richer than the people around him, privileges him within the Tea Islands, it is apparent that Olondria is the more powerful country. It is an empire, whose history and extent is hinted at by the mentions of peoples and places absorbed or taken. And here's the thing: books can take us beyond ourselves, but books can also reinforce powerful narratives and spread them much farther than an individual experience or voice can go.

What Jevick learns of Olondria, initially, is limited by the books available to him and is shaped by his reading. But the books limit him in another sense. They are all written in Olondrian, and about Olondria, whereas the people of the Tea Islands speak Kideti, which has no written form. There are no books in Kideti. There are, apparently, no books about the Tea Islands. Much like Chimamanda Adichie's description of believing, as a child, that all stories must have blonde, blue-eyed children (mentioned in her TED Talk "The Danger of a Single Story"), so too are books and reading, for Jevick, associated directly with Olondria. It makes me wonder if his passion for Olondria isn't a direct result of his love for reading.

As the novel continues, Jevick is confronted by what he doesn't know about Olondria, as well as what he doesn't know about the people around him in the Tea Islands. He is caught in political intrigue between those who believe that books hold all truth and those who believe that truth is found through conversations with the dead. And he struggles against and for the red-haired Jissavet, who also comes to Olondria from the Tea Islands, though from a life very different from his own. He sees Olondria through the filter of his books, quoting liberally from them as he encounters each new vista and place, but also sees around that filter as his experiences break through what a book can tell him.

Samatar is too good a writer to provide simple solutions for Jevick or for the people he encounters. Books can limit our experiences and reinforce the structures of empire. They can also transport us outside existing structures. The same book may do both in different ways or for different people. Samatar has written a novel that captures the ecstasy and pain of encountering the world through books, showing us bits and pieces of our contemporary world while also transporting us into a new one.