No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, January 18, 2007

#3: Soldier of Sidon -- Gene Wolfe

Oh, it's a long time since I read, and reread, and immersed myself in Gene Wolfe's Soldier of the Mist, the tale of a veteran of the Persian War (479BC) with traumatic amnesia. (The sequel, Soldier of Arete, didn't make as much of an impression on me. I'm not sure why.)

'Read this every day' is written on the outside of the scroll that Latro carries with him. It's the only lasting memory he has: though when he wakes he may recall the previous evening, by noon he will have forgotten. At the beginning of each scroll, of course, there's not much story-so-far to read. As the scroll (or the novel) fills up, though, it's less feasible for Latro to catch up with his own story. He'll have more of a grasp on events at the beginning of his tale than events just beyond the boundary of memory. And all of them will read as though they happened to another man -- so he can express surprise, disbelief and amusement at his own actions, just as an impartial observer might do.

Soldier of Sidon has been a long time coming -- there have been rumours of a third book in the sequence ever since I began attending SF conventions and pub meets, fifteen-ish years ago. I've read online that Wolfe lost his notes and drafts, and had to recreate them: if true, it's even more remarkable that he's reproduced the voice of Latro so consistently. (That does sound as though I'm damning with faint praise. It's what writers do, eh? But Latro, amnesiac and god-touched (or -touching), is an unnervingly unreliable narrator.)

Wolfe resorts to the same narrative techniques, with elaborate variations, again and again. One of the most noticeable is that the narrative cuts away from the action just before a momentous event and resumes later, possibly with the assumption that the audience is aware of what's happened off-stage. (I can think of several instances of this in 'The Book of the New Sun', not to mention Pandora, by Holly Hollander.) It's an effective technique in that it pulls the reader into the text: an irritating one, though, in that close attention is sometimes necessary to locate these lacunae. Especially true in Latro's case, because chances are that he doesn't remember what happened.

In Soldier of Sidon, Latro goes to Egypt in search of long-promised healing. (It's not entirely clear how much time has elapsed since the end of Soldier of Arete. In early chapters, Latro writes about his life before this journey started, but soon those memories have gone.) Egypt, as somebody tells him, is riddled with gods, rotten with 'em: they're everywhere. And they most certainly make themselves known to Latro.

(Another Wolfe trope: the woman who is not what she seems, not alive or not human or not a woman.)

I liked Latro a lot more, in this novel, than I did in the previous two: but that might simply be that I'm older and calmer (or more perceptive; or pickier; or nostalgic; or zombified. Or a character in a Wolfe novel, who need not appear consistent but may still be so.)

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