Monday, May 21, 2012

100 Books #45 - Catherynne M. Valente's THE HABITATION OF THE BLESSED

Blemmyes! Panotti! Skiapods! Cametenna! Astomi!* Bookfruit trees! If these words do not excite you, or you just don't know what the hell they mean, then you are likely not a fan of the mythical kingdom of Prester John, a legendary priest-king who supposedly had a powerful and flourishing Christian kingdom in the far east somewhere, whose aid many crusaders were deluded into hoping for based on a fanciful letter said king was said to have sent to Constantinople in the middle ages. His kingdom was populated, in imagination, by pretty much every kind of fanciful beast that had yet to be found in the lands actually explored by Europeans, including those whom it was pretty well understood by that point had probably been made up by Herodotus. Even after Prester John's letter was discredited as complete fakery, some people still believed in his kingdom, where also was supposedly located the Fountain of Youth.


I might have thought that my lust for all things Prester John had finally been sated by Umberto Eco's Baudolino, many years ago, but I would have been wrong, wrong, wrong. Enter Catherynne M. Valente, a fantasy author of some repute (though heretofore unknown to me), who took the idea of "what if Prester John's kingdom had actually existed just as imagined" and ran a freaking marathon with it.

It's kind of a melancholy marathon, though, because, among other things, Prester John emerges as pretty much the villain, bumming everyone out with his insistence that everybody needed to convert to Christianity and stop making each other happy. "I will remake the world, more perfect, more pure," he says. Sound like every super-villain you've ever heard declaiming?

Despite this, this is a truly lovely book, even as it breaks the reader's heart in pretty much every way a book can.

The Habitation of the Blessed is divided up into several related narratives: that of John himself, detailing his discovery of and rise to power within this fabulous land, that of his immortal blemmye wife Hagia, that of a Panotti nanny who raised the children of the queen who invented the lottery that changes everyone's fates (see below), and that of an aging, ordinary human monk who is frantically reading and copying these other three stories before the books containing them, books he plucked from a bookfruit tree rot into illegibility. "My eyes raced my brain and both of them panted, exhausted. Fat globs of soft, furry mold swarmed up and took a great swath of words, and I felt tears prick my heart." Bookfruits must be taken fresh or not at all.

The tone of all four narratives is like that, incredibly wistful, mournful, full of love and regret (hence the title for the series of which this is the first novel A Dirge for Prester John). But the love the Pentexorans have for one another relieves the gloom and makes it beautiful, even as the strangeness and absurdity of their world makes it amusing.

Of them all, I loved Hagia best. She is neither defined by being a blemmye nor by being Prester John's eventual wife, spending most of the novel enjoying many ordinary human lifetimes' worth of experiences of every kind available to her because that's her culture's rule: immortality would get stale and unbearable if the immortal don't deliberately shake things up every once in a while, so every three hundred years a lottery is called that breaks up families and marriages and forces individuals to pursue new careers, a bittersweet idea softened by the knowledge that the next lottery might reunite a pair of spouses, a parent and child or close friends or colleagues. And hey, someone will draw a chit that makes him or her the ruler of Pentexore, the country where Hagia and her people dwell. It's a bittersweet existence, immortality...**

Not there aren't delights to be had in the other narratives, as when Prester John, just come from the most godawful of deserts, finally finds something sort of like food and eats of the fruit of the cannon tree (preferring that to the horse tree, where the fruit consists of whinnying horses' heads; at least the cannon tree just offers up edible, peppery-flavored shot) and is chewed out as a thief and worse by the fruits of yet another tree, those fruits, of course, being talking sheep heads, who tell him he is "baaaad." Well no, okay, they don't prolong the vowel sound, but they totally should.

A pity Prester John is such a prig in that scene, though. But that is his nature, for which he is ultimately and always forgiven, for that is how people are in Pentexore. That is how they have to be. They're stuck with each other forever, after all. Be excellent to each other, and party on, dudes.

If only.

Now, pardon me: I'm off to the bookfruit tree to hunt up the sequel.

*Blemmyes are headless people, whose faces are in their chests; Skiapods are dwarfs with one giant foot; Cametenna have hands so large they can hide their entire bodies in them much as Panotti can hide in their own giant dumbo ears. Astomi are people who need neither to eat nor drink and survive by smelling stuff.

**"Among the immortal, good manners are as important as bread and water. When we cannot forget anything, courtesy behooves  us all." The inhabitants of Hagia's homeland mostly come to regret their courtesy to John, who does not return it, who demands that they adopt his religion and beliefs and reject any source of eternal life that is not Jesus and in general is a bit of a jerk for a long time, but courtesy is what they know, courtesy and pity that John cannot see that he is already in Paradise as he harangues them about one they'll only reach if they're sorry enough.

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