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

Monday, October 01, 2007

The White Tyger -- Paul Park

This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, in November 2007.

This is the third in Park's Roumanian quartet, following A Princess of Roumania (2005) and The Tourmaline (2006). (The final volume, The Hidden World, is due next year.) Though penultimate volumes can sometimes seem slower and less eventful than other parts of a quartet -- marking time, building suspense -- The White Tyger provides a new perspective on previous events, and considerably more information about the world in which it's set. A great deal happens in this volume of the story, though it's inconclusive. There are reversals, mistakes, the gradual subversion and destruction of several well-laid and long-term plans. All it takes is a little greed, the wrong person in the right place, the hidden world trickling into the real.

The White Tyger moves the focus away from Miranda Popescu, who's been transplanted from our own Massachusetts to become a fairytale princess, a symbol of freedom and hope, in a Roumania quite different from the one we know. Miranda -- seen by her family's loyal followers as the embodiment of the White Tyger, a legendary symbol of Roumanian freedom -- is a shadowy puppet in this novel, and when she does appear it's seldom in a sympathetic role. There's more warmth in the widowed Baroness Nicola Ceacescu, calm within her web of plots: the Baroness is as happy to use magic -- simulacra, 'the old country magic of whores', and a degree of foreknowledge that may be prescience or predetermination -- as poison or intrigue. Sasha Prochenko (the bold and dashing lieutenant whom we encountered first as a girl, and then as a dog) is now a tripartite creature, capable of being male or female or something quite inhuman: and the ways in which Prochenko's three selves manifest, merge and interact with new protagonists, is fascinating.

Park fleshes out his world in this volume of the quartet. In A Princess of Roumania our own reality was written off as an elaborate deception to hide Miranda: now it's reinterpreted as a failed experiment. "Models for evolution, heliocentric ... fairy stories. A world where dreams mean nothing. Where the dead are dead. Where stars are only balls of flaming gas and planets are dead rocks, and we are only responsible to our own selves."

Miranda, the archetypal self-involved teenager, says lamely "And I thought it was all for me."

Roumania, even while occupied by the Germans, is the cultural, or magical, or actual centre of a world in which a god has been imprisoned in a tower for the last three centuries: where Cleopatra has taken her place amongst the deities on Olympos (and a world in which this deification is perceived as history rather than mythology): where Shakespeare's known as 'that English refugee' and Newton -- who 'died of syphilis and mercury in Potsdam, a drunken broken man' -- is more famous for his alchemy, and a few unpleasantly effective devices, than anything else. After all, in this world, Copernicus was wrong.

The story gathers pace like a runaway train -- yet there's also a curious, calming distance between the reader and the characters, a sense that we are watching their stories unfold rather than inhabiting those stories. In a way that could be said for the characters, too: that they're not inhabiting their own stories. For a world constrained by fate and gods, there are a great many individuals creating and recreating themselves, choosing the myths by which they live and die. Nicola Ceacescu, whose unfinished opera The White Tyger -- with herself in the leading role -- shows a steely determination to revise her own history and that of all Roumania, strives to find the myth that fits what she has done, and what she's become. Will she be Cleopatra with her asp? Or will she assume the attributes of that other princess of Roumania, the infanticidal Medea?

It remains to be seen whether or not Park can pull all the threads of his narrative together, explain every allusion and reinterpretation, in the final volume of the quartet. But having come this far, my hopes are high.

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