asakiyume: (Em reading)
[personal profile] asakiyume
A Stranger in Olondria
by Sofia Samatar
2013, Small Beer Press

Jervick, from the Tea Islands, is not only a stranger in Olondria, he’s a stranger in his homeland, too: someone educated in and besotted with the culture of a faraway land, schooled in letters in an oral society, able to recognize and make Olondrian allusions and references but bored by and ashamed of the place where he grew up. After his father dies, he travels to Olondria and briefly gets to experience the heady cosmopolitan existence he has dreamed of, in the consequence- and impact-free way strangers are both permitted and limited to. It’s kind of like being a ghost.

Except that in Olondria, ghosts—or angels, as they are called there—do have an impact, as Jervick discovers when one attaches herself to him, transforming him into a dangerous—and endangered---player in Olondrian current events.

So that story unfolds around Jervick, but what captured me was the ghost Jissavet, her history, and everything that her haunting of Jervick represented. Like Jervick, she’s from the Tea Islands, but where Jervick has had every advantage, Jissavet grew up poor and without status, but sharp as a tack, always chafing at her constraints—until she became ill with a disease whose sufferers become pariahs. Her mother took her to Olondria in hopes of a miraculous cure. She died there.

Jervick met her once in life: they sailed on the same ship to Olondria.

Now that she’s dead, Olondrians—some of them, anyway—want her, through Jervick, to provide them with oracular knowledge and blessings. Jervick, at least initially, simply wants to be free of her. For her part, Jissavet has no interest in Olondrian petitioners or anything else Olondrian. There’s just one thing about Olondria that means anything to her: books, and what they make possible. She wants Jervick to memorialize her in a book so that she’ll live on the way Ravhathos the Poet, Elathuid the Voyager, and Firdred of Bain have.

He scoffs at this idea at first:
Write her a book, set her words down in Olondrian characters! This ghost, this interloper speaking only in Kideti!
There’s cultural snobbery and classism in his reaction, but also a simple failure to realize that the technology of writing in Olondrian characters can be separated from the Olondrian language. People in our own world sometimes suffer from the same misapprehension: they confuse scripts with languages—but you could use the Arabic alphabet to write out Cherokee, if you wanted to, or Inuktitut syllabics to write out Cantonese, and so on.

Eventually Jervick realizes this and gives in to Jissavet’s demand. What a portrait and life he records. Jissavet is quite unlikeable in some ways, and yet so very sympathetic. She’s such a real person. Arrogant and cruel, but also generous, imaginative, and deeply insightful. The same Jissavet who’s contemptuous of her mother and bossy with her childhood playmate sings to her grandmother, holds her peace to spare her parents’ feelings, charms sailors. She’s so full of life, and then her illness steals her future from her.
The rage was already coming over me, the desolation, the covetousness, for life, any kind of life … It was as if I already knew what would happen, that we would be separated, [my friend] and I, that she would go into life, marry, have children, and grow old, and I would spend a few seasons stretched in the doorway.
(It may sound strange, but one thing I noticed and appreciated in A Stranger in Olondria was the presence and weight of illness, injury, and infirmity. I don’t mean to suggest that the book was some kind of Bruegel painting or hell scroll—not at all. These things are observed and portrayed matter-of-factly, part of the fabric of life along with dishes clattering and smoke rising, and yet with recognition of their tragedy, and that’s what impressed me. It’s a kind of acknowledgement and representation, not for shock value, but because they’re real and significant part of life.)

I think most fundamentally what the story asks is What do you value? What has worth? People’s answers are in sharp contrast. Jervick yearns for Olondria, with its literature and history, but his tutor embraces the rhythms of life in the Tea Islands. Jissavet’s father fled the loveless halls of the wealthy to marry her mother and live in poverty; Jissavet daydreams about the life of grace and ease he abandoned. More: Jissavet, with her lively mind, despises her mother’s foolishness. Her father desperately tries to get her to see her mother in a different light—to value her mother’s other characteristics. While Jissavet lives, she never does, but as she tells her story to Jervick, we can feel her remorse.

I have to finish off by mentioning the lovely writing of A Stranger in Olondria. I loved when Samatar employed it to illuminate some fleeting moment in human behavior. Although children don’t play a huge role in the story, the descriptions of them, of children’s emotions in particular, are perfect. One character describes getting overexcited when a certain guest would arrive:
“I would grow so filled with joy I had to scream; I would leap around the house, too drunk with relief to contain myself, and have to be sent to bed early or even punished. You see, our house was so solemn. There was so little room for play ... I laughed too loudly, I wanted each joke to continue forever.”
And then there are the startling, perfect similes and metaphors—Jissavet, as she’s being carried piggyback up from below-deck: “her bare feet dangled, silent bells.” Or these (about two different people:
She looked wan and remote, as if carved on a fountain.

She was fragile and impermanent as salt. Like salt she would dissolve, lose her substance. And like salt she would flavor everything with a taste that was sharp and amniotic, disquieting and unmistakable.
Or this, in a creation myth, talking about the sea:
Greetings, my daughter. What do you think of this sea?

And Kyomi answered with shining eyes: It is beautiful, like a long fire.

Then the elephant said: Ah! That is because you know only the gods. But if you loved a mortal man, how different it would be! Then this same sea, which is to you and me like a fire, or a great mat woven not of reeds but of lightning, would appear to you gray and flat and even more lifeless than the mud.

Describing someone’s self-exile, Jervick reflects,
I see him with the sweat on his brow which has turned the color of tallow and imagine how he will flee to the ends of the earth, putting the fathomless sea between himself and this sweet, incautious girl, interring himself in a country of alien flowers.
A country of alien flowers. It’s a startling, memorable, beautiful book.

Date: 2019-02-22 01:18 am (UTC)
sovay: (Haruspex: Autumn War)
From: [personal profile] sovay
A country of alien flowers. It’s a startling, memorable, beautiful book.

This sounds wonderful. Thank you for writing about it.


Date: 2019-02-22 01:48 am (UTC)
minoanmiss: Minoan lady scribe holding up a recursive scroll (Scribe)
From: [personal profile] minoanmiss
Oh my wow.


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