The OF Blog: Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun: The Claw of the Conciliator

Friday, November 30, 2007

Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun: The Claw of the Conciliator

In discussing some of the themes and plot developments in the first volume of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series, The Shadow of the Torturer, I took pains to insure that I did not address certain thematic elements that would reoccur in deeper and sometimes more explicit detail further in the series. So as will be my practice in the coming volumes, I will not be going further than the book read, although since this is my third time reading the series as a whole, there might be a few occasions where I slip up and discuss events out of order. So for those wanting to know more about the symbols of the rose, the fountain, and the spaceship that were found on the tomb in the first volume, I shall not discuss that at length until I review the fourth volume, The Citadel of the Autarch.

There were certain characters and situations that I did not elaborate much upon when I wrote my theme-oriented review of The Shadow of the Torturer. Before I delve much into the plot development and the possible themes embedded in The Claw of the Conciliator, I want to spend a bit of time discussing a few characters that first made their appearance in the opening book in the New Sun sequence.

Thecla, the Chateleine who once was was the Autarch's leman (in this specific example, quasi lover, as we shall see later in this volume) before being seized and brought to the Torturers because of certain papers that implicated her as being associated with Vodalus, is in many senses the half-overlooked center of this series. We only learn the basics about her torture and how the diabolical Revolutionary drove away her will to live. I did not note it in the first review, but one could make an argument that the Revolutionary serves to represent our tendency to find faults in ourselves, often to the point of us committing what many Christians might call the most insidious of the Seven Deadly Sins, that of sloth/despair. In the course of the narrative, Severian stops at the point of exploring just what were the exact effects of the Revolutionary, but based on his passing comments, the hypothesis that I presented above might be developed from it.

Thecla's personality, which later we learn is often petty and cruel, is important not so much because we "witnessed" her torture and suicide, but because of a recurrent theme in this volume, one that was hinted at earlier with Dorcas's rising from the pond: resurrection of the body. A great many of the events that occur in this volume revolve in some point around the resurrection of the body or soul, or conversely, around the decay and corruption of both body and mind.

Jonas, a companion from afar who joins Severian near the end of the first volume, is one such example. Wounded in an attack about two-thirds into this volume, Jonas's body of cells and metal represents a sort of a reverse cyborg; a machine clothing itself in human parts in order to repair some prior damage. Severian's attempts to "heal" Jonas are only partial, but this melding of the biological with the mechanical in the person of Jonas perhaps could be viewed as a metaphor for the interactions between the physical body and the spiritual soul. However, the text is ambiguous on this point and I do not have citations to present to support this point.

Jolenta, the Nessus barmaid who becomes part of Dr. Taltos and Baldanders's travelling troupe, serves as an example of this mind/body union. Altered by Dr. Taltos's arts, she has become a thing of beauty and of desire, but yet there is a sickness within that mutates from a metaphorical matter into a very real and visible disorder near the end of the book. Her façade has crumbled and what we see then is now related to what the astute reader might have perceived soon after the first encounter with her after her transformation.

Dr. Talos, that mad scientist whose skills have managed to create simulacra of life, beauty, and truth. The composer of that play near the end which serves to foreshadow the concluding two volumes of Severian's saga. The fox-like creature, so clever and so manipulative, the apparent source of so much subterfuge. I have read elsewhere that some have postulated that Talos is based on the mythological Cretan creature of bronze that guarded the island, while others have noted his role as artificer as being but an extension of this attempt to replicate life via mechanical means. I side more with this second explanation, as Talos (and by extension, Baldanders) seem at first to have goals so similar to the more mystical bringing of the New Sun (or the second blooming of life on Urth), but whose means betray their real end goals.

By now, perhaps you are weary of my digressions and wondering just why I haven't discussed the plot of The Claw of the Conciliator. While it may seem as though I have digressed and not have attempted to explore the "story" of this novel and its strengths and weaknesses, in many ways I have covered just that, albeit via those seeming detours of character study. While The Claw of the Conciliator certain can be read on the surface level as the continued travels of Severian and friends from the gates of Nessus to the outliers of Thrax, to understand why the multitude of events such as Severian's second meeting with Vodalus and what transpired there occurred the way they did means adopting some of Severian's own approaches towards telling his story.

There were quite a few lacunae in this tale. Not only does the opening chapter pick up on the other side of those colossal gates of Nessus, in the town of Saltus (some commentators have noted that since the action apparently is set in South America, that Nessus may be the corruption of Buenos Aires and Saltus may be the alteration of the Argentine province/town of Salta), but the tone of the narrative changes. The careful reader has already noted, doubtless, that while Severian's eidetic memory has left him sharing all sorts of petty little details such as the stories from the brown book from Ultan's library in Nessus that he took after Thecla's suicide and his banishment to Thrax, there is so much that he is skipping or deigning to downplay. The open lies and lies by omission that will later become a hallmark of Severian's character are more on display here.

Also, the scene about halfway into the novel where Vodalus and his associates invite Severian to partake in what Wolfe later called a "diabolical eucharist" of consuming Thecla's body while drinking an elixir from an alien creature known as the alzabo (more on that in the next volume) is a turning point in the narrative. Lies of omission or not, the Severian "voice" that we have encountered to date appears to be singular in nature, but slowly after this scene, the thoughts and personality of the consumed Thecla emerge and occasionally the "Severian" we encounter on the pages of the book is somehow different; sometimes Thecla in tone, sometimes Severian, other times an amalgamation of the two. This partaking of the body and receiving something of the mind/spirit of the deceased is a sort of a perversion, some might say, of the Catholic/Orthodox doctrine of the Real Presence of the Christ in the wine and bread consumed in the Eucharist. It certainly something whose ramifications will become more evident in the succeeding volumes.

As I said earlier, resurrection motifs abound in this volume. From the healing of the man-apes (how did those creatures evolve or perhaps devolve over time?) to the partial healing of Jonas to the nigh-useless attempt on Jolenta, the blue gem that Severian carries, the legendary Claw of the Conciliator, serves to highlight this theme of healing in the midst of death and suffering. While I will address the theme of suffering later in the fourth volume review, it bears to keep this matter in mind as one reads these volumes.

The allusion-filled play near the end that Severian, Dorcas, Jolenta, Dr. Talos, and Baldanders perform (before I forget, there are a couple of scenes that I'm purposely leaving out as I need to wait until the fourth volume to discuss them at length) serves to foreshadow what lies underneath the journey of the exiled journeyman Torturer. From the Persian names for Adam and Eve to the mention of the "dawn" of Ushas (herself a Hindu deity of the dawn), the eschatological interpretation of the New Sun is presented in a way that seems opaque at first, but which yields so much fruit once the series is complete. Since I am writing this review with those who have just finished reading The Claw of the Conciliator for the first time, I will pause here. After all, the road again is not an easy one to travel.


Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Larry. This review is really helpful in understanding what Wolfe is up to.

Larry Nolen said...

You're welcome. Glad it's helped you in understanding much of what Wolfe is doing. I'm finding that I'm starting to understand a lot more of the backstory as I concentrate on reading the passages more carefully in preparation for these reviews :D

Unknown said...

I would like to add that I think there are some literary allusions. Sad old Jonas riding on his small mount vainly seeking the love of unattainable Jolenta seems more than accidentally similary to Don Quixote.

The name Talos probably does refer to the fact that he is contrived person, not born and raised. But the nature of his relationship to Baldanders, their castle, experiments and some specific quotes make me sure this is a Frankenstein allusion. Actually a reverse Frankenstein story because in this one we have a monster who creates his doctor instead of the opposite.

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