‘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 offence. 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. But of an end to their argument, we shall have none, not ever, until the end of all.’
Never in my life have I read such a blend of my favourite things. Fairy tales, Russia, and all the grim darkness of death combine in this novel, making for a fantastic, unhappy riot that flows as easily as the wind.
Deathless is a surrealist Russian fairy tale set in the confines of 20th century St Petersburg (or Petrograd/Leningrad). It chronicles the life of Marya Morevna, bride to the Tsar of Life, Koschei, and her terrible adventures in the realms of life and death.
It would be easy to mistake this book for a twisted romance, but in ambition it is a sweeping commentary on life, death, war, love and all things in between. In execution, it is close to perfect.
There are rusalka and talking horses, firebirds and birds who can become men. There are sisters, lovers, and murderers. There are ghosts, and chains, and blood. It is at once, too much, and exactly enough. The balance of this novel is exquisite, and Valente’s writing is of the highest quality. Every stitch of this book is artful, but it reads with the ethereal lightness of the best old fairy tales.
Gushing though my praise may be, it is, I feel, deserved, because Deathless is everything I wanted it to be.
‘There is no such thing as a good wife or a good husband. Only ones who bide their time.’
A book as hideous as it is beautiful, and whilst it echoes with the voices of other writers (something reminded me of The Master and Margarita), Deathless is both bizarre and unique.
I am hesitant to read any more of Valente’s works, because I am reluctant to believe any writer has got more than one book as good as this in them, but whether Deathless is one of a kind or not, I am so, so glad to be alive in a time to read it.
‘”We are going to do something extraordinary together, you and I,” she whispered. “Do you remember when you said that to me, so long ago? Do you know what it is we are doing? I will tell you, so that later, you cannot say I deceived you. I am taking my will out of you, and I am taking yours with it.”‘
Mysterious and poignant, this is a book to carry in the soul, and to compare with all others. It is for ones like this that I read, and my one gripe is that Valente’s masterpiece has raised the bar so high that many good books will now never attain greatness in my mind. A sad truth, but, as Deathless voices more than once: ‘life is like that.’