Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Review of Soldier of the Mist by Gene Wolfe

Of the variations of loss mankind faces, memory is one of the hardest.  Less physically and more existentially painful, memory deprivation is tantamount to losing one’s self; without the past to inform identity in the present, the mind can find itself in a stranger’s body.  Alzheimer’s an extreme, there are subtler variations of memory loss which nevertheless smear the personal conception of self across a subjective peep show of the remembered past.  Entering this gulf of equivocated identity is Gene Wolfe’s brilliant 1986 novel Soldier of the Mist.  The story of a soldier in ancient Greece suffering anterograde amnesia (the inability to form long term memories), the world through his eyes appears unstable and off-putting.  But as time moves on, the reader realizes the man’s condition is not as far removed from a healthy mind’s perspective of memory and the past as it would seem. 

Writing an account of his day on a scroll before going to sleep and encountering a scroll with the words “Read This” in the morning, Latro the soldier learns and relearns anew every day who he is, long term memory gone.  Struck on the head in battle, he retains hazy memories of his youth and language skills, but little else.  Name and home, for example, are a mystery.  Life literally taken day to day, instinct and the will of others guide his life.  On the losing side of the battle, he begins Soldier of the Mist a slave to the victors. Prized by them, he is allowed to befriend an Ethiopian and a poet, and soon comes into a friendship with a young slave girl—she the biggest help in retaining his notion of self.  After the battle a divine intervention sets him on a group pilgrimage to the Shining Mother. The circumstances of life and the condition of his memory quickly shift the focus, however.  His goals evolving with each stop on the map, it’s meeting the necromancer Eurykles that effects the most change.  Witnessing the resurrection of a corpse in a cemetery one evening, Latro’s perception of the gods, the living, and everything between intertwine to lead him closer to who he is.  Trouble is, he may never remember.

Latro’s head injury likewise rendering him capable of seeing the Greek pantheon, his view of the world is an indistinguishable mix of the sacred and mundane.  The gods most often appearing as mortals, his encounters are typically quotidian.  Only the details of the moment and context of later encounters provide any hint as to the actual identity of the people he may have met.  Otherwise, the lives of the other characters—soldiers, slaves, oarsmen, merchants, etc.—merge together in a single view of the living world.  Conversations with the gods are as ordinary as conversation with Pindaros the poet and Io the slave girl.  Further lending the interaction an air of realism is that Wolfe sets the stage with factual history.  But rather than clonking the reader on the head with pages of erudition, the details of everyday life and the geography of Greece of old are blended minimally and seamlessly into plot and dialogue.  It all amounts to a sublime vision of the Greek archipelago wherein the supernatural and natural merge in the woodwork of the moment, memory, and place.

On several occasions, Soldier of the Mist can seem to skip or jump ahead in time with little coherence to what has passed.  The standard ominiscient narrator not available to fill the gaps, the reader has at their disposal only what Latro had the time or inclination to transcribe in the scroll.  Like journal entries, exclusions naturally are made.  But Latro puts it more eloquently: “This day is like a stone taken from a palace and carried far away to lands where no one knows what a wall may be.  And I think every other day has been so for me as well.”(218)   Beyond continuity, there are likewise consistency issues.  Even the written word is potentially discreditable: “…when I reread what I’ve written, I sometimes wonder whether I wrote the truth” (209) Latro questions at one point.  Moreover, there is evolutionary aspect to perspective.  A goddess tells Latro: “Learn wisdom… Knowledge is more than gold”, to which Latro disagrees: “Knowledge is soon changed, then lost in the mist, an echo half-heard” (81).  The conclusion of the novel proving the case, the sum value is a presentation of the subjectivity of two ideas humanity often thinks of as objective: memory and knowledge.

This literary device, like the historical elements, lends an air of realism. But more interestingly, it presents a non-standard narrative.  It’s fractured, it exists in bits and pieces, and while generally in linear form, it’s not the same third person omniscient stream of “memory” one typically sees used in novel form.  Challenging the common assumption that memory is an arrow backwards through time, Wolfe presents its reality as more fluid and scattered.  The clarity and concreteness of memories shift and fade—memories of even a day ago sometimes different from what video or photographic evidence present.  The temporal focus shifted, Wolfe emphasizes existence in the present.  But cleverly, he sharpens the idea to a finer point.  Latro, after explaining his memory situation to a goddess, is told:

   “Then you must enjoy each as it comes, because each day is all you have.”
    I shook my head. “Consider the slaves in that village we passed.  Every day for them must be much like the day before.  If only I could find my own country, I could live there as they do.  Then I’d know much that had happened the day before, even if I could not remember it.” (218)

More than just abandoning one’s self to the moment, he grounds the present perspective in something more foundational, namely the need for routine and consistency in home and family to provide context.  Thus, for as much as we’d like to perceive ourselves as beings with a grand overview to the past, Wolfe presents our notion of present as far more subjective yet dependent on environmental factors for continuity. 

In the end, Soldier in the Mist is historical fantasy of the most subtle, realistic, and yet engaging variety.  And it starts with Latro’s daily amnesia—a fascinating plot device. At first blush appearing to distance normal existence, as each of his experiences pile one on top of the other, the gap is closed, however; Latro’s problems become more human than his unusual circumstances would seem to allow.  Set in an ancient Greece the fingertips can almost touch and a world replete with mundane gods, the reader begins to think it’s not so inhuman after all.  Proust may be literary fiction’s interrogator of memory and perception, but speculative fiction always has Gene Wolfe.

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