Thursday, February 17, 2011

Yeskov's Middle Earth

Laura Miller has a largely nonsensical review of Kirill Yeskov's The Last Ringbearer, which has recently become available in a free English translation. She does give a good summary of the basic plot of the book, which is a telling of events leading up to and immediately after the War from the point of view of Mordor, which is presented as a beacon of industrial enlightenment.

It's actually two stories in one: a bit of bad Tolkien fan fiction -- the term is apt, and and the stereotypes about fan fiction to which Miller refers have little to do with most fan fiction -- that has unfortunately attached itself to a genuinely ingenious and clever fantasy-world spy story. All the most Tolkienish elements are absurd cardboard caricatures (Gandalf is a raving and rabid fool despite somehow masterminding one of the most important strategic victories of all time); all the interesting parts of the story consist of espionage and intrigue in Umbar. Yeskov would have done much better simply to strike out on his own.

Interestingly, the Elves, with some minor exceptions, come out as much more formidable in Yeskov's tale. Tolkien's Elves, for all their splendor and wisdom, are a fading and declining race; as Tolkien himself said at one point, of all the members of the Fellowship Legolas contributed the least, and this was almost inevitable given the waning of their civilization. But Yeskov's Elves are an impressive and dangerous force, in large part because they are, apparently, the only people in all of Middle Earth capable of consistently formulating and following rational plans: they are the only race whose war strategy makes any sense (and correspondingly are the only race who actually come out of the War genuinely better off than they went in), they are the only race who are consistently competent at political intrigue, and for much of the book they are the only people who have any intelligible motivations at all since they are the only people who plan on the basis of what they know they have rather than on desperate gambles. Ruthless, conniving, and manipulative, they are nonetheless (except, apparently, for the Lord of Lorien) competently ruthless, conniving, and manipulative, which makes them show up to good effect against a background that, barring a few individuals here and there, consists mostly of irrational incompetents.

I'm amused that Miller buys into the line that the morality of Yeskov's tale is less black-and-white than Tolkien's. Tolkien has a sharp line between Light and Dark, but you will find nothing in Yeskov's tale that has the moral nuances of Gollum's vacillations, or Faramir's temptation, or Frodo's final failure through exhaustion of will. What we do have is a different sharp line between the forces of Freedom and Reason and their agrarian opponents. We are told repeatedly that Mordor is a land of reason, of freedom, of tolerance, of education, of progress. I say 'told' advisedly because we are not shown but told. Over. And over. And over again. What we actually see of Mordorian society is pretty sparse and not clearly connected with Mordor's status as a nation undergoing Enlightenment. We learn that a really badly designed engineering project almost completely destroyed its agricultural capability, leading it to put its full force behind industrialization and to sentence the designers of the irrigation project to twenty-five years in the lead mines (our only real acquaintance with Mordor's justice system). We learn that Mordor has mandatory literacy and a university, that its scientists are in the process of making a number of medical, mechanical, and chemical discoveries that are leading up to a full-scale Industrial Revolution. And we also learn that the whole realm of Mordor, because of its agricultural disaster, is almost entirely dependent on caravan trade for its food supply, a problem that all these rational and clever Mordorian scientists and inventors apparently never saw as serious enough to merit much attention, despite its putting them obviously at the mercy of known rivals and enemies. Indeed, virtually the only reasons we have to think that Mordor was in fact a beacon of reason and tolerance are (a) obviously partisan descriptions that read like badly written propaganda; (2) the cartoon villainery of Mordor's enemies; and (3) its technological advancement. It's a world in which moral issues have been simplified, not complicated. There is one complication, I suppose, that does add some twists to the story but does not, in fact, work very well: repeatedly we are both shown and told that reason and progress are saved by people acting irrationally. Rational people, after all, are predictable.

Likewise, it's somewhat amusing to see Miller buying into the notion that Yeskov's version is more realistic, as if there were anything about the story, outside the espionage narrative, that isn't less plausible and more mind-bogglingly fantastic than what we find in Tolkien. The novel, in fact, is too joke-ridden to be seriously considered realistic; it is not trying to be more realistic but to be hyperbolic and exaggerated for comic effect. This sometimes pushes the borders of both taste and sense, as when the rape of a woman by a local landlord chiefly serves as the occasion for satirizing the landlord. This is no more a greater realism than it is a greater moral nuance. Treating it as realistic is like treating Terry Pratchett as realistic: it's a sign of confusion about what reality is. (Actually, it's not too far off to think of the book as The Lord of the Rings re-written by Terry Pratchett. Pratchett would have done a far better job with the Tolkien elements, but it does have broadly Pratchett-like features.)

All this said, the actual book is readable -- the Tolkien caricature doesn't really take up as much of the book as one might think, and the spycraft plot actually starts getting interesting after Yeskov gets it fully up and running. The jokes are heavy-handed (perhaps an artifact of translation -- Russian jokes somehow always seem heavy-handed when translated into English) but some of them aren't bad. The love-interest elements of the story aren't handled all that well, but in some cases they do give key characters a more human air, and the descriptions of background events are generally interesting. The back-and-forth in time is a bit disconcerting, but is easier to follow than Miller suggests. You can download it for free from the translator, so you don't even have to pay for it, and for the most part it's at least as good as the more readable and enjoyable kinds of light fiction you find sold in airport bookstores, so it's a much better deal.

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