Monsters Are Real
Samuel R. Delany's Tales of Nevčr˙on, which I wrote about here, introduced Nevčr˙on, a country on the brink of ancient history and civilization. Its five stories ranged across this ancient world, starting from the great port city of Kolhari out to the Ulvayn islands and down to the "barbarians" of the south. Neveryóna, which I wrote about here, continued the stories of Nevčr˙on in novel form, following the character of Pryn from a village near the holds of Ellamon, where young girls ride dragons, to Kolhari, and from there to the south.
Flight from Nevčr˙on, the third volume in the sequence, returns to the multi-story format with a novella, a short story, and a novel. New characters are introduced, and old ones return in new stages of their lives, hinting at the living done off the page. Raven, the warrior woman, reappears with a crew of her fellow warriors from a far-off matriarchal country. Norema and Pryn each make their own appearances, having returned to the city of Kolhari. And Gorgik the Liberator continues his campaign to rid Nevčr˙on of slavery, his moves and plans obscured by politics and the distance of the narrative from the machinations of power.
Knowledge and its uncertainties have been a constant presence in the Nevčr˙on stories, but this uncertainty acquires a deeper urgency in the three stories of the third volume. In the opening novella, The Tale of Fog and Granite, a smuggler obsessed with Gorgik collects every hint, rumor, story, and piece of gossip he can find, trying to assemble the bits into truth. Through a series of encounters with men he thinks may be Gorgik, his desire for certainty is continually disappointed, leaving him uncomfortable and scarred. When he at last seems to have met the real thing, he finds his knowledge barely changed:
The illuminating and major change he might have hoped for in an encounter with the real, taking him from night to day, had, equally certainly, not occurred. Just as before, he still carried with him, unknown and untaxable, the intricate, frightening, many times questioned and faulty certainties still called, at the behest of whatever unnamed gods, truth.
This quest for a truth that could be described as absolute and certain, solid enough to fit in the palm of one's hand, is undercut throughout the book as knowledge is fragmented again and again. Knowledge is not solid, the Nevčr˙on stories tell us. Under the pressures and pulls of society, knowledge shifts, swells, and breaks over the top of us.
"The Mummer's Tale," following the smuggler's novella, takes us even deeper into the uncertainties of knowledge. The story is written as one side of a conversation between the mummer and the Master of a school for the children of well-off merchants. We read only the mummer's words, his answers to the Master's questions and the questions he asks in return. Immediately, in the telling itself, a level of knowledge is missing: as readers, we can make assumptions about the Master's side of the conversation, but we don't know.
Our certainty is undercut by a second layer: the mummer's tale is largely about someone else -- the same smuggler we followed in The Tale of Fog and Granite. (The Nevčr˙on sequence as a whole is full of these careful daisy chains of construction, stories linked by the brief appearance of a character or reference to a previous event. The smuggler, for example, is also one of the smugglers with whom Pryn briefly travels in Neveryóna.) The story the mummer tells, as authoritative as it sounds, is coming to us secondhand, distorted first by the smuggler's memory and secondly by the mummer's memory of the telling.
Our illusion of certainty is destroyed a third time when the mummer tells us about the smuggler's experience of madness. How could the smuggler have remembered the experience with all the vividness and detail that the mummer provides? How could the mummer have remembered those details and recount them with such perfection? No, we are forced to conclude, this tale is not nearly as solid as it may appear. This illusion is emphasized, finally, at the end of the tale, when the mummer and the Master compare notes about how they first met, and it becomes clear they remember the event entirely differently. Says the mummer:
Truly, I suspect the gods have crafted a different city for each of us, specified not only by our different points of view in it, but also by the random and irrational discontinuities into which our hopelessly faulty recalls endlessly cast and recast our diverse and separate lives.
And by the way, he may as well be saying, you may trust what I said, but don't believe it is a whole and absolute truth, for such a thing does not exist except in impossible hopes and dreams.
The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals pierces our certainty from its first page. All of a sudden, after pages and pages of Nevčr˙on and Kolhari, we are on the streets of New York City with Samuel R. Delany. The man behind the curtain pushes the cloth aside to show the makings of his imagination. The illusion of an authoritative narrator is broken, allowing Delany to take more hesitating, questioning steps through the narrative. He begins to draw attention to his work. "There is something incomplete about Pheron," he says about one character. About another: "But my inability to reach her on that morning, millennia ago, only confronts me with my own failings, incompletions, absences." In another place he has left in the kind of note typical to drafting: "Expand this scene to some six/eight pp." The italics are original to the text. They disappear for two pages and then reappear: "No. Can't write it out. Not now."
The pages of The Tales of Plagues and Carnivals vibrate with what is incomplete, unknown, and mistaken -- and the potential consequences. A plague spreads through Kolhari -- one of the Master's students is ill, Lord Vanar is ill, a craftsman named Pheron is ill. Meanwhile, AIDS is spreading through the New York City of the 1980s. Delany describes the action -- or inaction -- of AIDS within the body: "Suddenly the body gives up, refuses to heal, will not become whole. This is the aspect of the 'illness' that is ravenous for metaphors to stifle its unsettled shift, its insistent uneasiness, its conceptual turbulence." Like the smuggler seeking the real Gorgik, a metaphor is sought out of the hope that it will lead to certainty. Also as in the smuggler's story, certainty is soon swept out of reach. In New York City and Kolhari alike, people struggle to understand where these illnesses are coming from, what is causing them, and how they are spreading. The discomfort of uncertainty and the unknown lead to metaphor, to hard (but inaccurate) realities, and to inaccurate truths that strike down those made vulnerable by the fissures of power.
Discomfort and fear also lead to a desire to run, but Flight from Nevčr˙on (see, there it is in the title) does not offer much hope that uncertainty can be escaped. Time and again, The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals puts a stop to running away. Norema, living in a neighboring room to the sick Pheron, thinks "I want to flee this city, this country, this land ready to think of anything but the pain within it. Only considering what lies on the other side of such flight stops me." The Master, too, is impelled toward flight. At the age of seventeen, he tells the reader, he chose to travel through all of Nevčr˙on, tracing the life and inventions of the barbarian inventor named Belham. Arrogant in his certainty, he maps a route from the place of Belham's death to the place of Belham's birth. He and his entourage encounter disaster immediately, incapable of finding the exact cliff from which the inventor fell to his death. Every step of the quest is similarly foiled, as the stories and rumors of the inventor far outnumber the known facts. Finally, the Master and two remaining companions find their way to the far southern border of Nevčr˙on, passing through a series of towns each of which claims to be the place of the inventor's birth. Disappointed in himself and by an uncertain reality, the Master as a young man yearns to leave behind the complications of history, which have kept him from the solid truth he seeks. He imagines, without quite saying, that if only he could leave the edges of the map, if only he could leave Nevčr˙on, he could free himself of those complications. He could face something new. Something solid and absolute.
He leaves his travel companions by the fire and begins walking through the woods, following the river he knows will lead him off the map and out of the country. He walks slowly through a moonless night, traveling by feel and by sound. He hears a noise he can't identify. The noise comes again. Then something -- something that is nothing like what he imagined truth to be -- moves through the trees toward him, brushing his arm wetly and filling his nostrils with the smell of rot. He turns and runs, back to his companions by the fire, back to Nevčr˙on, back to Kolhari. "Monsters are real," he says.
Monsters are real.