Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

My 2018 review (lightly edited) followed by thoughts this time around:  This is my fourth time through this masterpiece, the first since 2012. It's a set of three interconnected novellas.

The first is flat out one of the best things ever written. A man, referred to as Number 5, returns home from prison and recalls his life before prison being raised by his father who was a mad scientist/brothel owner/former slave trader who performs experiments on him. It's set in a city, Port-Mimizon, modeled on New Orleans on one half of a set of twin planets, Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix, that have been colonized by humans (specifically from France) some generations before. It is beautiful, heartbreaking and absolutely brutal in its depiction of human capability for cruelty. But it's way subtler and more enjoyable than that description would indicate. While I haven't read Proust, the opening is famously modeled on the opening of Swann's Way, and the writing is some of my favorite anywhere. Themes of memory, slavery, colonialism, identity, pedagogy, robotics and genocide are all at play here. Despite all of that, play is a key word because there's a lot of subtle punning around Wolfe's name and shots taken at Academics. Wolfe doesn't forget that he has to tell a good story to carry all that weight and doesn’t slip into didacticism. Even his exposition here is handled gracefully.

The second novella purports to be written by an anthropologist who is a minor, if significant, character in the first section and a prisoner in the third. It's the most confusing part of the book. It reads like a bumbling colonial anthropologist recounting a myth of the people who were native to the other half of the twin planets. This is complicated by the fact that the identity of the author is ambiguous (though I think he can be identified after reading all three novellas). There's a lot to parse out here and I'm not sure I fully understand it, but I was able to enjoy it immensely. The themes from the first section are at play here as well, but from another angle.

The third novella reveals the extent of the cruelty, evil and absurdity of the government of the planet from the first section. It is reminiscent of Kafka. It takes the form of a series of interviews of and conducted by the anthropologist, his prison diary and his diary of his trip where he gathered the material for the second novella seen through the eyes of a government official who reads/listens to them out of order because the labels have fallen off. Here more of the extent of the slavery (including sexual slavery) becomes clear and the horror of the situation is brought home. It ties up the three novellas thematically.

I love this type of storytelling, learning about a place through very different perspectives and genres. Wolfe has a subtle touch and there's a lot to consider. I've been meaning to reread this for a while and was prompted to finally do so because The Gene Wolfe Literary Podcast is doing a close reading and discussion of it all fall.

2019 re-read:

I stand by most of what I wrote about this last year. I think some of my trouble with the second section was that trying to overcomplicate it. This is tempting with Wolfe, because he packs so much into every story. This time around, though, I think I have a better grasp of what happens in that section.

I even more fully stand by the first novella. The Cerberus of the title is a three headed dog that guards the main character’s home, which is a mad scientist’s den housed in the depths of a brothel. It was only on the fourth reread last year that I realized that if Cerberus was guarding it, it must be hell. The house, and by extension the city of Port-Mimizon and the whole society on Sainte Croix and Sainte Anne, is hell. Slavery still exists. It’s not explicitly said, but at least some of the women in the brothel have to be slaves. Number Five’s father is performing genetic experiments and the “failures” are sold in the slave market.

Taken as a whole, the book is incredibly effective at showing how hellish colonialism is for the the colonized; it is equally effective in showing how it turns the colonizers into monsters. There is a lot more going on in the stories than just that, but this is what stood out to me this time.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It can be confusing on a first read (especially the second part), but rewards the effort that it takes to sort through. And, despite that description, and despite its bleakness, it manages to be entertaining. It belongs on the shelf with things like Pale Fire, Jeff Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: An Afterward and Cloud Atlas; that is, works made up of parts that function on their own, but, when taken together, add up to something more. This is firmly in my reread every year list for the time being.


No comments:

Post a Comment