Published by Tor on Nov 26, 2013
Genres: Science Fiction
Find the book: Amazon, Goodreads
A travel writer arrives by train in a nameless Eastern European country, a mysterious remnant of the Soviet bloc and cast-off of Western civilization, in Gene Wolfe’s new masterpiece, The Land Across (Tor Books).
To be sure, this place is no ale-toasting whistle stop on a Rick Steves European tour. Here, a dictator rules from a mountain retreat, the JAKA (the government’s secret police) operates through extortion and intimidation, and the clergy is at war with a satanic cult sprung from its own ranks. This is a state with an unidentifiable language, where outsiders are regarded with suspicion and where rationality is left at the border. It is a dream world, the realm of allegory, and a world through which our narrator, Grafton, must navigate in order to find freedom and regain his life.
From the first page, we realize how remote and forbidding this place is:
Visitors who try to drive get into a tangle of unmarked mountain roads, roads with zits and potholes and lots of landslides. Most drivers who make it through (I talked about it with two of them in New York and another one in London) get turned back at the border. There is something wrong with their passports, or their cars, or their luggage. They have not got visas, which everybody told them they would not need. Some are arrested and their cars impounded. A few of the ones who are arrested never get out.
Or anyhow, that is how it seems.
Accordingly, as he approaches the border to this isolated country, Grafton is jolted from his sleep; the next thing he knows he is escorted from his train by border guards who confiscate his passport, stuff him in a car, and place him under detention in a private home in the suburbs of the city of Puraustays. If he escapes, they tell him, Kleon, the owner of the house, will be shot. What follows can only be described as a voyage through an archetypal dreamscape, one inhabited by libidinous women, mystical priests and callous bureaucrats; a shadow world of haunted mansions, castles ruins, dark forests, and labyrinthine office buildings.
After a year of imprisonment in the capital, fellow inmate, Russ Rathaus, escapes and Grafton becomes a participant in the investigation to find his former cellmate. Joining forces with Naala, an assertive and attractive JAKA operative, Grafton rises in the JAKA’s esteem until he becomes a JAKA operative himself (he is given his gun and badge.) He tracks down Rathaus, and later, in a final confrontation, dispatches with the Undead Dragon (the ringleader of the cult of the Unholy Way) thus ridding the capital of its former menace. In exchange for his help, the dictator returns Grafton’s passport and he is granted free passage out of the country. It is back in America where our narrator safely writes down this harrowing account.
My skin crawls whenever I read about someone taken into police custody without charge. This is the hook here, and Wolfe exploits it expertly. The Land Across joins many novels in this tradition; the most famous among them may be Franz Kafka’s Der Process (1915). In Kafka’s story, Josef K is arrested and brought before a tribunal in an attic above an obscure tenement building. There are no rules in this court. There is no recourse. There is only procedure and advice and waiting and dread. This is the same territory that Wolfe’s Grafton has stumbled into.
“You have done nothing,” Grafton’s new friend Volitain says as they discuss his dilemma. “Damn straight! So why was I arrested?” Volitain answers, “They needed someone. That is all.”
But where Kafka’s protagonist turned the knife on himself in the end, in Wolfe’s book, Grafton is rewarded for his complicity. In this sense, Wolfe’s worldview (his weltanshauung) seems drawn toward redemption (and this could be seen in a religious context) and hope rather than Kafka’s dark and cynical fatalism. And perhaps this is okay?
Of course, we, as readers, would never allow for Kafka’s protagonist to join with his oppressors. It would signify the failure of the individual…the loss of self. And perhaps this is where I’ll hang my only criticism of Wolfe’s book. When given the condition of the godless, oppressive irrationality of the modern bureaucratic state, what route does and individual take toward freedom? José Saramago’s lead character in the novel All the Names found resistance native in the human spirit. Kafka felt that death was the only way out. But joining with one’s persecutors, as Grafton does in Wolfe’s novel, seems to me like too risky a bet. Yes, some good is done, but at what moral cost to Grafton? Of course, there is a higher level of complexity here, but this is a problem that needs attention.
I come late to the Gene Wolfe fan club, but I provide it with a new and dedicated member. I had no understanding, before reading this book and learning about Wolfe, of how revered he was in the field of speculative fiction, and I would certainly consider myself unauthorized to place this work in the broader context of his lauded and distinguished career. That said, this novel is mesmerizing and should stand on its own, independent of its predecessors, and further proof of Wolfe’s mastery.