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

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

#16: The Hidden World -- Paul Park

Now she could see herself where the worlds come together and the paths branched down to Great Roumania, and Massachusetts, and the hidden countries, and the land of the dead. This was where the alchemist had built his tower, sealed up the creature that eats away the knowledge of these things. No, knowledge is too strong a word. (p. 283)

The Hidden World concludes the quartet that began with A Princess of Roumania. Miranda Popescu, still homesick for the imaginary world (our world) created as a refuge for her by her aunt Aegypta, finds herself entering the hidden world, the ultra-reality that lies beyond and within the 'real' world where Miranda now lives. That 'real', geocentric world -- the British Isles destroyed by earthquake and tidal wave, North America a wilderness inhabited by yellow-haired savages, Roumania a world power, the Roman gods still worshipped, dead people and vampires and shapeshifters walking abroad in daylight -- is seen through reflection, mirror, analogy. It fascinates me, and I feel cheated by the dearth of detail in this fourth volume.

The novel opens with Miranda recuperating in an isolated farmhouse, musing on her missing friends Andromeda and Peter, and haunted in dreams by her dead aunt Aegypta Schenk, who's still intent on Miranda's destiny and the salvation of Great Roumania.

Roumania is in turmoil: at war with Turkey, both in the real world, where massive tanks roll up from Africa, and in the hidden world where monstrous hybrid dogs snarl and snap. Airships (should they be termed 'zeppelins' here?) rain bombs upon Budapest: radiation sickness afficts survivors of a train crash in the south of the country. The old government has been overthrown, and some still mourn the death of the infamous diva Nicola Ceaucescu, rumoured to have been involved in sundry wickedness ...

It is not wise or prudent to curse the dead, because the dead can hear us. Often they don't care. Many are able to lay down their grudges with their abandoned bodies. Many are able to forget their struggles and animosities. Nicola Ceaucescu was not one of these. (p. 66)

Critics seem to love Nicola Ceaucescu, the widowed Baroness: the most complex, poisonous, entrancing, unforgivable villainess I have ever encountered in a tale says John Clute. One of Park's major achievements in this sequence is to make her a sympathetic villain, -- well, a likeable and charismatic one. She's very much a product of her time and her world, and her fragile, careful shell of vulnerability ("the happy thing about being a woman ... you don't have to do anything, but only suffer for long enough" (p. 207)) overlays an indomitable core. Being dead is no impediment to Nicola Ceaucescu: on the contrary, it opens up whole new realms of opportunity.

This review may seem patchy, top-heavy with quotation. That's because I'm still working through and thinking through this novel: it feels oddly unfinished, though perhaps that's the author's intention. There are a number of things I think are significant, and not merely interesting. For instance: photographic portraits of General Frederick von Schenck (Miranda's father) show his face 'blurred and indistinct': he's in motion, hidden in plain view, unrecognisable. For instance: in this world Jesus was not crucified, but was responsible for the crucifixion of the Roman generals. For instance: the tourmaline that permits Miranda to enter the hidden world is less and less like a stone, more like a fruit or a 'tough little sack of flesh'. For instance: Newton and Kepler were alchemists, and Newton a great admirer of Kepler. It was Newton who broadcast the tale of Kepler seducing a creature of the Hidden World 'with a mixture of honey and blood', and locking it in a stone tower. (It was Newton, too, who conjured six demons, demons who later ended up in General von Schenck's pistol.)

... perhaps before that you could pray to God and God might answer. There were miracles that could be verified. The histories are full of them. Since then, nothing. Not a single visitation or answered prayer. Now we are left with science as a last resort. (p. 178)

This is not to deny the sense of resolution in the last few chapters of The Hidden World. Both Andromeda and Peter find a measure of peace with their true selves: of the original three protagonists, though, it's Miranda who sees her choices clear-eyed and determines that the price she'd have to pay is too bitter, too high.

"There were a lot of books I used to read ... There was always something to be accomplished, and it was always difficult. People suffered. But at the end of the book it was all worth it, because the thing was finished and the story over. That's not true here."
"No," said her aunt. "That's not true here."
"Tasks without end," Miranda said.
(p. 282)

Read for (overdue) Vector review -- this is the more subjective version, and I may also post the actual review after publication.

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