Jan 28 2015

Vlast and Cool and Dangerously Sympathetic

I’m about a quarter of the way through Truth and Fear (concurrent with more Discworld, The Iliad – to see whether it captures me the way The Odyssey did, and in a modern translation since I bounced right off of Chapman’s, and probably some other things that rise to the surface of the to-be-read piles), and I wanted to just sketch out a few things that I had in mind about the relationships between our consensus history and the imagined Russia of Peter Higgins’ novels.

I’m also starting to think that the series is About climate change, though I’m not sure how thoroughly the author is aware of it.

Hitherby spoilers, and randomness.

Most of Wolfhound Century takes place in and around Mirgorod (“world-city”), the capital of the Vlast. Its construction and urban history are closer to the imperial capital of Russia, St Petersburg, than to its present capital. Its existence began when the unnamed Founder (of both the city and the Vlast) chose the site to be a window to the world. That matches the founding of St Petersburg, which was intended to be Russia’s window to Europe. What’s missing in Wolfhound Century is the contrast with the old capital. Petersburg was founded to be everything that Moscow was not: orderly, rational, planned, unified in style, new, modern, free from the layered centuries of tradition represented by the old capital and its Kremlin. The duality of the two capitals is a theme much visited in Russian writing.

The very founding of the Vlast (the word generally means “power,” but can also be rendered as “authority,” “rule,” “dominion,” and other things along similar lines) has erased any preceding political entities and traditions. The first book alludes to an older nobility, almost a separate folk, but details are sparse. My general impression was that the Vlast replaced a fairly diffuse system, one that functioned without an ancient capital such as Moscow represented to later imperial Russia. In that sense, the Vlast is a fully modernized, and indeed largely atomized, polity such as Soviet Russia at the height of Stalin’s power.

That is one reason that in my first piece on the book I characterized the Vlast as both pre- and post-revolutionary. The Founding was a revolutionary act that swept the old system away, and many facets of Vlast society are recognizably Soviet, or at least Soviet-style. On the other hand, the Vlast has endured longer than the Romanov dynasty did in our Russia, so it is simultaneously up-to-the-minute and ancient. I have a hard time seeing how such a thing would come to pass in our world, but it is very interesting to observe the mix that Higgins has set up.

It is pre-revolutionary in the sense that it is a long-standing political regime, and many groups are working towards its overthrow, much as they did in the late tsarist period in our world. The bank robbery that opens one plotline the book is directly lifted from a heist that Stalin masterminded in Tbilisi in 1907. And the main revolutionary who appears in the book, Josef Kantor, is also plainly modeled on young Stalin. The Novozhd (once firmly in office, Stalin was known as the Vozhd, or boss, and the prefix looks like a shortened version of новый, noviy, Russian for “new”) is mostly an off-stage presence in Wolfhound Century, but he, too, is modeled on Stalin. So that particular aspect of the conflicts in the book is Stalin vs Stalin.

I’m a bit puzzled as to why Higgins gave the revolutionary a name that in our world would be very recognizably Jewish. The relationships between revolutionaries and Jewish people are some of the most fraught in interpreting Russian and Soviet history, and it seems odd that Higgins would want to open that particular set of controversies without something specific in mind. But nothing, as yet, has developed that would offer an explanation.

The old nobility, “former people” in a Soviet phrase that would not be at all out of place in the Vlast, also play a role not unlike that played by Jews in both the late imperial and Soviet periods. There are ghettos, some institutions of self-government (or at least self-oversight), pogroms, and semi-random violence of the sort practiced by the Black Hundreds in our world.

Some other characters in the book are also very obviously cadged from our world. The head of the secret police is Lavrentina Charzia, a clear analogue to Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s last head secret policeman. Making the character female has not structurally changed the role much. After Stalin’s death, Beria tried to secure the succession for himself; in Truth and Fear there are some signals that Charzia will attempt the same after the assassination of the Novozhd at the end of Wolfhound Century. Beria’s comrades in the Politburo had him arrested three months after Stalin’s death, and executed by the end of the year.

Higgins plays with the contingent nature of history throughout the book, with competing visions of an ultimate resolution represented in the book by the Archangel and the Pollandore. As these mystical entities (and other magical elements) exert their influence, visions of other Vlasts intrude on the reality that the characters are experiencing. One of those is a never-realized plan for the Palace of the Soviets, with an immense statue of Lenin on top of it. An alt-alt-history, so to speak. The funeral of the Novozhd, in Truth and Fear, takes place in a building that seems to echo the Volkshalle that Hitler had planned for Berlin.

Some reviewers did not like the way that Higgins has played around with pieces of history. I enjoyed the side game of spot-the-element, and it made me think of our own history refracting in odd ways, which deepened my enjoyment of the novel.

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3 comments

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    • Al Singh on January 28, 2015 at 5:14 pm
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    Are you reading the Robert Fagles translation of The Iliad? That’s the one I’m reading. “The world went black before his eyes as he went down to Hades…”

  1. Yes, that’s the one. (I have the feeling I read somebody else’s Odyssey.) But I’ve been getting to bed so late that I haven’t made any headway; the brain needs something much lighter before shutting down for the night.

  2. I love the Fagles translation. I read the Bantam version of The Odyssey a while back; I forget who translated it, may have been Fitzgerald. “When dawn’s rose fingers…” I just finished The Iliad and am now reading the Fagles Odyssey. The cover of the book has a quote from Time magazine that says without irony, “One of the best books of 1996.” Uh, hello, I’d say Time is off by about 2700 years.

    It’s interesting how certain poetic phrases repeat themselves throughout the Iliad and the Odyssey. “Priam who hurls the strong ash spear…Achilles the matchless runner…the stallion-breaking Trojans…dawn’s rose fingers…Odysseus, man of many wiles…” I think it supports the idea of Homer being a real and single individual, as opposed to a composite of various poets who worked on the poems independently. The introductions by Bernard Knox cover the controversy of Homer’s identity and the poems’ origins at some length; if you haven’t read these I would recommend them. They also discuss the ancient Greek worldview in fascinating detail…don’t know if you’re interested in such things, but I definitely am. Plato suggested that passages describing Hades as a horrible, gloomy place should be censored, because they undermined the willingness of the Greek soldier to die for his polis. I could go on and on about stuff like this, but that would be too much for a “comment;” maybe I should write you another letter. 🙂

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