I’ve finished my second whole book on the Kobo and am plowing into my third. Yet for the past few days I’ve been wrestling with how to talk about A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar. I had to read a couple outside reviews to nail down my feelings. The positive one points out that it’s a love letter to books and reading, while at the same time exploring the tension between history, literate societies and oral societies. The frustrated one more mirrors my own experience, in that I spent most of the novel irritated by the ponderously layered language and cultural constructs, and by the “boy meets dying girl, dead girl haunts boy, boy falls in love but must set both of them free” plot.
That’s not actually a spoiler, that’s the jacket summary, but I came to this book knowing nothing about it, only that it was supposed to be good and that it featured a non-European fantasy world, which, hurrah! And as I was reading, it occurs to me how much media I consume in which I sort of know what’s coming — you’ve read the book before you watch the movie, or it’s a remake or a mash-up or it’s based on a fairy tale, or you can see the plot coming a mile away. I didn’t have a clue what the book would be about for the first hundred or so (ebook) pages. It gets off to a very slow start with little indication of what the story will become.
The experience of reading the book gave me much more to chew on than the book itself. Let me try and break it down. I found myself dealing with three main threads:
- What’s the world look like?
- Is a haunting plot the same as a colonialism/globalization plot?
- Why do I keep reading books that, in the end, I cannot connect with?
Visualizing the world
Before I realized what my frame of reference should have been, I had a very hard time trying to fit the book’s universe into a coherent whole, and this wound up being a pretty problematic element for me—problematic, in that I could feel myself defaulting to European fantasy norms when the text was telling me otherwise.
In my last book review I found it helpful to think about the mix of other stories that went into that one. A Stranger in Olondria shifts around: a little Invisible Cities, a little Great Expectations, a little Dictionary of the Khazars. The long, slow exposition is totally plot-free. We learn about life on Tyom, the island from which our protagonist, Jevick, hails. Jevick’s father is a wealthy pepper merchant with two wives and an older son whom we probably would call developmentally disabled, which makes Jevick the heir to the family trade.
The most important thing to know is that Jevick’s father hires a tutor for Jevick from Olondria, the great big civilization on the mainland, as a matter of social status. Jevick is meant to learn the Olondrian language so he can take up the family business and travel to Bain, the capital city. What actually happens is that Jevick learns to read (Tyom has no written language), falls head over heels for Olondrian culture and begins to feel estranged from and constrained by life on the island.
Jevick, of course, goes to Olondria, as the title suggests. For whatever reason, I conceived of Tyom as some sort of cross between Malta and Java, though looking back, I’m going to guess we were meant to think of Sri Lanka. Bain, the capital city, was harder for me to envision.
Part of that was the names. Across the board, Samatar uses names like Bain, Jevick, Auram, Miras and Jissavet to represent a wide variety of cultures, in which I see (incorrectly or not) European linguistic roots, and I wasn’t sure what to do with that. I also had a hard time finding visual signals in the text, though that may have been my own impatience with Samatar’s oppressively lush prose. The cover, while beautiful, didn’t help either: the setting portrayed looks vaguely Venetian or Turkish, though the protagonist wears a baroque style of jacket that says to me Europe between about 1670 and 1790.
The cover, of course, often bears very little resemblance to what the author intends, but it affected my read all the same. Samatar’s own biography reads:
Sofia Samatar is an American of Somali and Swiss German Mennonite background. She wrote A Stranger in Olondria in Yambio, south Sudan, where she worked as an English teacher. She has worked in Egypt and is pursuing a PhD in African languages and literature at the University of Madison, Wisconsin.
My frame of reference for East Africa is profoundly lacking, save for how I love Ethiopian food. I now realize that I would have worried significantly less about trying to correctly visualize Samatar’s universe if I had remembered more about Indian Ocean trade and more firmly shifted my contextualization south and east away from the Mediterranean.
I got there by the end; the real climax of the story clearly takes place in a Southeast Asian/Indonesian/Malaysian setting—and yes, it makes me laugh that I can’t be more precise than that. But I should have nixed thinking about the cover altogether, which seems more Octavian Nothing than the text actually supports.
But there it is. I really felt the force of my own ignorance here. Coupled with knowing I wasn’t supposed to be thinking of a European world—but wait, was I? Is Olondria a European analog? Is that part of the story? It bothers me that I can’t figure this out, but I didn’t like the book nearly enough to want to spend time on a reread.
Hauntings and colonialism
The plot that I didn’t see coming wasn’t the haunting (though as soon as the text telegraphed it, I wished it wasn’t), but the one where Jevick becomes a ghost whisperer and thus embroiled in a cross-continental religious war.
Maybe I would have been more receptive to this plot if the ghosts weren’t called “angels” and Jevick wasn’t called a “saint.” I am aggressively disinterested in angels. Supernatural was my favorite show until it became all about the war between the Christian Heaven and Hell, and Dean Winchester’s great revelation that “angels are dicks.” Samatar’s angels are not messengers, so far as I can tell, nor is there any kind of hierarchy involved; they’re more in the vein of “touched by an angel,” for certain sects of Olondrians, at least.
All this means that Jevick has to deal with being kidnapped by the state and then “rescued” by a cult, when all he really wants to do is find and burn the body of this dead girl he met briefly on his boat ride from Tyom to Bain.
There’s more I could say about this, again, if I knew more about conversations about colonialism and globalization. Because both of these plots are about being captivated and overwritten. Jevick immerses himself in the books and language and history and culture of Olondria, perhaps to the exclusion of his own, and then becomes wracked by the spirit of Jissavet, who comes from another island culture that has no system of writing. In fact, to Olondrians, Jevick is nothing more than a vessel for these angels: all they want from him is access to their own dead. (This nicely mirrors one of my biggest problems with the story, which is that Jevick is a total cypher and I don’t care about him.)
I am terrifically bored by stories in which a girl dies, latches onto a boy, who inevitably falls in love with her, and needs him to save her and set them both free. Jissavet has to die to be important to the narrative, and she also cannot move on until Jevick writes her story down. (Would I have been so irritated if Jevick was a woman? I think it would have been a more interesting authorial choice, but that’s for fanfiction to fix. Also, a more interesting book is hiding inside this one: Jissavet’s adventures in the afterlife trying to get hold of this reactive doofus who keeps setting off wars and riots. Alas.)
I can’t remember when it is that Jissavet, who is a member of an untouchable caste without jut, a kind of soul, decides that writing and books are what will set her free—and to step outside the story review for a moment, this is definitely the most irritating thing about reading on a device, because it really would be handy to be able to flip through a physical book and find the reference I need. I have no sense of where it lies in an ebook, which means mostly this experience is going to be about stories read straight through, which is, for me, a sort of unexpected warping of the process.
But eventually Jevick flees Olondria for the frontier, and spends a winter inventing an alphabet for his and Jissavet’s native tongue and taking down the story of her life, which is really the highlight of the novel. This is where, after all of Jevick’s rhapsodizing about Olondrian poets and history and letters, we see his own culture recognized as equal and worthy of unapologetically recording. Not only that, but Jissavet is an infinitely more interesting character than Jevick. It was a profound relief to read about someone with passions and temper and a risk-taking nature. Jevick wants to experience; Jissavet wanted to live.
So, what this all says about postcolonial literature, I am ill equipped to posit. Practically Marzipan has a nice, brief reaction that sums it up in part. Again, if I was more conversant in these discussions, I might have had a different reaction to this book (a lack I also felt with Alif the Unseen), which says to me that I have more work to do.
Reading out of spite
I wanted to like A Stranger in Olondria so much more than I actually did. The prose style was such a treat at first, especially as I spend so much time with journalism these days. The gorgeousness of Samatar’s sentences begins to work against her after a while, though. My own problem with first-person narratives is that they’re very self-conscious. People don’t think like that, or keep diaries like that, or talk like that. (I realize this is a strange complaint to make when Innogen and the Hungry Half is nearly all first-person present narrative, but I’ll play the unreliable narrator card for that one. It’s still not my preferred mode of storytelling, but Innogen has always been about pushing myself and experimentation.)
Anyway. Jevick is in love with language and Olondrian culture, which means that his every communication is infused with ten layers of references and ornament. One surefire sign that I’m not going to get along with a story is an extensive amount of fake outside literature. I hate made-up poetry and skip it in every book I read; extensively quoting made-up poets, priests and philosophers gets tired just as quickly. (I’m equal opportunity about this, by way, and don’t really care for excessive reference-dropping of real cultural figures either. Allusion and transformation are what make those references rich–otherwise the act is just a catalog. But I digress.)
Our hero may be in love with Olondria, but in the end, I wasn’t—whatever emotional weight he gave to his world and his relationships, I didn’t feel it, despite his many protestations of how much, for instance, he loved Jissavet. (Why? She’s been terrorizing you for the whole novel! That is some Stockholm syndrome plot device-ing, dude, and the story didn’t need it. “They fall in love!” is not the only relationship two people thrown in a room together can develop.) I hate to come back to Cat Valente, but I see on Samatar’s website that she recommends Palimpsest, one of Valente’s earlier novels (from a period of her work which I find too overwrought to pursue). And again, Valente’s Prester John novels draw me in emotionally much more with the same story, the stranger caught up in the culture he’s traveled to see.
In the end, I’m glad I pushed through A Stranger in Olondria, because otherwise I wouldn’t have read Jissavet’s vallon, the record of her story, which, in retrospect, has more weight now that I’m more removed from the book. And it’s been a good learning experience, understanding more of what I need to learn about reading outside my comfort zone. But sometimes I wonder if I should rethink my policy of finishing an unsatisfying novel at all costs. It doesn’t prove anything, except to refine my conditions of what doesn’t work for me as a reader.
The book I’m reading now, The Sacred Book of the Werewolf by Victor Pelevin, is so far proving much more satisfying, so hopefully the next review won’t be nearly so sour. I’m also pulling together some thoughts on the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, which exploded all over my corner of the Internet this summer. Happy Friday, folks! Thanks again for making it to the end, and as always, recommendations for further reading are always appreciated.