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352 pages, Hardcover
First published March 29, 2011
"No one is now what they were before the war. There’s just no getting any of it back."For me, this was, above anything, the story of war and loss. The war between mythical country of Buyan and Viy, the Tsar of Death. The Great Patriotic War between Soviet Union and Germany. The Leningrad blockade . Leningrad was under siege by the Nazis from 1941 to 1943 - arguably the most lethal siege in history. Thousands of people froze and starved to death - several hundred per day in the winter of 1942. People ate sawdust bread, rats, pets, and each other. People died right on the streets. And yet the city - the Leningraders - never gave up.
"A war story is a black space. On the one side is before and on the other side is after, and what is inside belongs only to the dead."Chapter 23 of this book tore my heart to pieces. As you may guess, this is the part with the blockade. I will not say much more except for quotes and real blockade pictures. They speak for themselves.
"That night, she burned all the books in the attic for heat. She carried them down, one by one, because December ate up her strength. She lit them in the stove while they all huddled around and put out their hands. Last one in was the Pushkin, and she cried, but without tears, because you cannot have tears without bread."
"A ration card says, This much life we have allotted you. It says, This much death we can keep from your door. But no more. It says, In Leningrad there is only so much life to go around. It says, The only thing not rationed in Leningrad is death."
The story Valente weaves is poignant and gut-wrenchingly beautiful. It is poetic and melodic like Russian folklore from which it draws inspiration. It is humorous (albeit darkly so) and bittersweet, intimate and hopeful, both simple and complex at the same time. It is strange and captivating. It is about loss and friendship and betrayal. There is no good or evil, black or white. In this, it's very human. And I love it.
"A marriage is a private thing. It has its own wild laws, and secret histories, and savage acts, and what passes between married people is incomprehensible to outsiders. We look terrible to you, and severe, and you see our blood flying, but what we carry between us is hard-won, and we made it just as we wished it to be, just the color, just the shape."
“You must see,” chirped Chairman Venik finally, “that a communal house requires communal domoviye, and communal domoviye require a committee. We are happy to do our part! It is a new world, and we do not wish to be left behind.”Marya is denied the red Pioneer scarf - and carries it in her heart. Koschei comes to get her - and she follows him without thinking twice since in the Soviet Union "When they come for you, her mother had once warned, you have to go. It’s not about wanting or not wanting." Real life Party slogans permeate the mythical country of Buyan. Zmei Gorynych, the legendary three-headed dragon, deals with bureaucracy of the Purges. And
"The goblins of the city may hold committees to divide a single potato, but the strong and the cruel still sit on the hill, and drink vodka, and wear black furs, and slurp borscht by the pail, like blood. Children may wear through their socks marching in righteous parades, but Papa never misses his wine with supper. Therefore, it is better to be strong and cruel than to be fair. At least, one eats better that way. And morality is more dependent on the state of one’s stomach than of one’s nation."And, of course, this book is also about the power of stories which play out a certain way because that's how they are supposed to play out. Some things are inevitable - or are they? Can you change fate? Does it matter if you try?
For it to happen the way it always happens [...] The Church always splits. Ukraine always withers in a poison wind [...] You could tell your tale differently this time, I suppose. But you won’t [...] You will always fall in love, and it will always be like having your throat cut, just that fast. You will always run away with her. You will always lose her. You will always be a fool. You will always be dead, in a city of ice, snow falling into your ear. You have already done all of this and will do it again.--------------------------------------
And am I the Tsaritsa of Life, then? half her heart asked. The other half answered, Not even for a moment were you ever queen.
"Khoschei, Khoschei," she whispered. "What would I have been if I had never seen the birds? I am no one; I am nothing. I am a blank paper on which you and your magic wrote a girl. Just the kind of girl you wanted, all hungry and hurt and needing. A machine for loving you. Nothing in me was not made by you. I was six when the rook came - six! That's my whole life that you've bent in your hands."
If a novelist wrote a true story about how things really happened, no one would believe him, and he might even be punished for spreading propaganda. But if he wrote a book full of lies about things that could never really happen, with only a few true things hidden in it, well, he would be hailed as a hero of the People, given a seat at a writers’ cafe, served wine and ukha, and not have to pay for any of it.
“Drink, Marousha,” he clucked gently, like a mother, and put a glass to her lips. “Your lungs want vodka.”
"I don't care, Marya Morevna. Kiss him. Take him to your bed, and the vila, too, for all it matters to me. Do you understand me, wife? There need never be any rules between us. Let us be greedy together; let us hoard. Let us hit each other with birch branches and lock each other in dungeons; let us drink each other's blood in the night and betray each other in the sun. Let us lie and lust and take hundreds of lovers; let us dance until snow melts beneath us. Let us steal and eat until we grow fat and roll in the pleasures of life, clutching each other for purchase. Only leave me my death — let me hold this one thing sacred and unmolested and secret — and I will serve you a meal myself, served on a platter of all the world's bounty. Only do not leave me, swear that you will never leave me, and no empress will stand higher. Forget the girls in the factory. Be selfish and cruel and think nothing of them. I am selfish. I am cruel. My mate cannot be less than I. I will have you in my hoard, Marya Morevna, my black mirror.”
“I ate all of my husbands. First I ate their love, then their will, then their despair, and then I made pies of their bodies - and those bodies were so dear to me!”
“The rapt pupil will be forgiven for assuming the Tsar of Death to be wicked and the Tsar of Life to be virtuous. Let the truth be told: There is no virtue anywhere. Life is sly and unscrupulous, a blackguard, wolfish, severe. In service to itself, it will commit any offense. So, too, is Death possessed of infinite strategies and a gaunt nature- but also mercy, also grace and tenderness. In his own country, Death can be kind.”
“Husbands lie, Masha. I should know; I've eaten my share. That's lesson one. Lesson number two: among the topics about which a husband is most likely to lie are money, drink, black eyes, political affiliation, and women who squatted on his lap before and after your sweet self.”
You humans, you know, whoever built you sewed irony into your sinews.
If she had looked out the window, she might have seen a great, hoary old black owl alight on the branch of the oak tree. She might have seen the owl lean perilously forward on his green-black branch and, without taking his gaze from her window, fall hard—thump, bash!—onto the streetside. She would have seen the bird bounce up, and when he righted himself, become a handsome young man in a handsome black coat, his dark hair curly and thick, flecked with silver, his mouth half-smiling, as if anticipating a terribly sweet thing.
In Soviet Russia... culture appropriates YOU.Deathless is an absolutely disgusting and distasteful book. I would not recommend it to anyone who has anything beyond a superficial Hollywood-level understanding of Russian history or culture. Valente (who is decidedly not Russian*) threw the Wikipedia page on Russian folklore into a blender and prettied up the mess that came out—name-dropping like it’s going out of style, shoving every possible reference to #JustRussianThings into her prose as though the audience will forget where the story’s set, prose so purple it should probably be iced. I love a good eroticised villain, but this felt like sexing up your creepy uncle to set him up with the little girl he’s been watching for her entire life. It’s Twilight-levels of age difference. It’s beyond gross.
I do not tolerate a world emptied of you. I have tried. For a year I have called every black tree Marya Morevna; I have looked for your face in the patterns of the ice. In the dark, I have pored over the loss of you like pale gold.
I will not let her speak because I love her, and when you love someone, you do not make them tell war stories. A war story is a black space. On the one side is before and on the other side is after, and what is inside belongs only to the dead.
You will always go into that tent. You will see her scar and wonder where she got it. You will always be amazed at how one woman can have so much black hair. You will always fall in love, and it will always be like having your throat cut, just that fast. You will always run away with her. You will always lose her. You will always be a fool. You will always be dead, in a city of ice, snow falling into your ear. You have already done all of this and will do it again.
Koschei smiled. His pale lips sought hers, crushing her into a kiss like dying. She tasted sweetness there, as though he still kissed her with honey and sugar on his tongue. When he pulled away, his eyes shone. [...] “I don’t care, Marya Morevna. Kiss him. Take him to your bed, and the villa, too, for all it matters to me. Do you understand me, wife? There need never be any rules between us. Let us be greedy together; let us hoard. Let us hit each other with birch branches and lock each other in dungeons; let us drink each other’s blood in the night and betray each other in the sun. Let us lie and lust and take hundreds of lovers; let us dance until snow melts beneath us. Let us steal and eat until we grow fat and roll in the pleasures of life, clutching each other for purchase. Only leave me my death—let me hold this one thing sacred and unmolested and secret—and I will serve you a meal myself, served on a platter of all the world’s bounty. Only do not leave me, swear that you will never leave me, and no empress will stand higher. Forget the girls in the factory. Be selfish and cruel and think nothing of them. I am selfish. I am cruel. My mate cannot be less than I. I will have you in my hoard, Marya Morevna, my black mirror.”This isn’t elegant, it’s just bad. It’s not poetic, it’s just bad.
"Reading it takes your breath away - much in the same way as being slowly crushed to death. You breathe out and can't breathe back in, and the world crumbles beneath you."