Gene Wolfe

 

Soldier of the Mist

 

An unusual book, based around several interesting ideas but rarely gripping.

 

It has one of those stupid bogus forewords from a fictional ‘translator’, claiming that the text is from an ancient recently discovered scroll. I remember reading a similar fanciful introduction to an historical fiction about an Irish agitating writer transported to Tasmania, with some fluff about discovering old family letters and diaries. We all know it’s fiction, it’s not trying to be anything else (it even says ‘fiction based on events in 479 BC’), so why bother with this added ruse?

 

Our narrator is Latro, a soldier who’s taken a nasty blow to the head (in the first Persian invasion of Greece?) and as a consequence can only remember events from the last 24 hours, or general knowledge. There’s also something of The Bourne Identity in him discovering that he’s a dab hand with a sword, or at planning an attack, or sailing etc. However while Ludlum’s character steadily claws back his identity and unveils the deeper plot among action packed fight scenes, Wolfe’s Latro meanders in a far more disconnected dream state. He writes the text as his way of knowing what’s happened so far – but at any point our narrator is back to square one unless he’s had a chance to sit down for a few quiet hours over his scroll.

 

This is an interesting concept, and I enjoyed the way Wolfe realised it for the first few chapters, but I don’t think he did enough to sustain it for a novel (let alone a series!) – as a short story or novella, perhaps. You could play this scenario for humour, or pathos, or as a mystery gradually being solved (and, granted, Wolfe teases us with gradual hints, but at an enormously slow rate: remember this is the first of a series of ‘scrolls’), but it’s more a vehicle for us to get a bit of a tour of the famous faces and places you bump into if you’ve read Herodotus’ accounts of Athens and Sparta at war. I get the impression you’d probably enjoy it more if you’d done some ancient history more recently than I had (only dim echoes of the early 80s HSC course happening for me) and could play ‘spot the reference’ in his disguised narrative (for example, Spartans are never referred to as anything but ‘the rope makers’, and Athens is only called ‘Thought’). Still, it’s surprisingly a bit too much like a textbook, with most of the writing in that self-consciously formal style, a bit like translations of psalms that obviously ached in the original, but are made pompous and detached in translation. A major character, for example, is supposed to be a sumptuous babe who spends half her time trying to seduce Latro, but scenes, even when she disrobes, aren’t even vaguely erotic; likewise fight scenes are like summaries you’d read in a text book – Wolfe has taken no advantage of the room to make the action come alive.

 

If that was it I probably wouldn’t have bothered finishing this vague bookish tale, but I stayed with it for two reasons.

 

The first is that Wolfe introduces the wonderful idea of making Latro’s injury give him (alone) the ability to see the gods. Wolfe has really picked up on the fact that at the time most of the population did believe in the gods – the temples and oracles weren’t just for a bit of local colour. So many of us modern sceptical readers just slide over those references, whereas Wolf perceptively makes them more an integral part of the action. To have a god pop in now and then is intriguing. That being said, maybe I just wasn’t clever enough, or maybe Wolfe did it deliberately, but I found these appearances steadily more confusing and less interesting. ‘Who can understand the ways of gods?’: maybe we’re supposed to find them as inscrutable as the characters do, but, again when the narrative style itself doesn’t engage, and these characters do little to the plot development, by mid way through the novel I wasn’t really enjoying this clever notion.

 

Oh, and the second reason?

 

A book can keep me awake into the small hours, and the odd really absorbing one will keep me up all night until I’ve finished it in a single session. This is enjoyable, but not something you want all the time because of the consequences of staggering through the next day. A really dodgy book, in contrast, won’t last me too long, but is somewhat irritating. Wolfe’s Soldier of the Mist struck the perfect balance between being interesting enough to bother with, but bland enough to put me to sleep after just a few pages. It took me much longer to finish this book than usual, and I got a lot more sleep over that time. Is that a recommendation?

 

May 2003