The Luminous Depths is the second novella in a projected trilogy; I had the pleasure of reviewing the first some time ago on this very site. A dark, poetic fairytale of murder and magic, On the Overgrown Path concerned some increasingly surreal goings-on in a small town somewhere in central Europe between the two world wars. The somewhat eccentric protagonist of this story, Leos J----- (a real-life historical figure), also appears in the opening of The Luminous Depths, engaged in a typically off-the-wall endeavor—having buried pieces of paper with musical staves written on them around his garden, he has press-ganged his students into serenading the buried notes with music to see what might grow. (While he waits, he is visited by, among others, Franz Kafka, seeking advice on a similar bit of paper that fell out of the sky and spoke dire forebodings of Czechoslovakia’s future.) But is this bizarre botany really so daft? As we leave J-----, a small tuber is nosing its way from the soil by his feet.
For the remainder of the novella, the narrative torch is passed to the brothers Pavel and Karel Capek, both composers and writers, and Josef Hass, an illustrator. All three are engaged in putting the finishing touches to an opera called Rossum’s Universal Robots, when they, like J----- before them, become entangled in a web of surreal magic, the catalyst of which appears to be a piece of parchment, much like the one Kafka presented to J-----, covered in miniature staves and notes and folded intricately into a paper chrysanthemum. The act of unfolding it sends the Capeks, Josef, and the whole operatic troupe forward in time eleven years, to a night-time Czechoslovakia in the brutal grip of the Nazi regime.
Herter is getting good at this. His use of real characters, situations, and texts (the 1921 play on which the opera the troupe are rehearsing is based, R.U.R., is where we find the origin of the word "Robot") is, as he is happy to admit, a combination of fact, extrapolation, and sheer invention, but we nonetheless feel we are indeed reading about real people, that the story is grounded in reality. As Stephen Baxter points out in his introduction, this often makes the novella a somewhat painful experience, as it is "very hard for the reader to bear the knowledge that all these complex lives would soon be swept away by the Nazis and their war" (p. vii), but it also makes it that much more fascinating a read.
Herter’s use of magic as a plot device is distinctive and compelling. As in the first novella, magic manifests itself as music, notes which alter the world into which they are plucked, sung or written (as Baxter notes, there are intriguing parallels here with "some of our modern ideas of post-relativity physics" [p. vii]). Magic is also organic, part of the vegetable world; as in the opening chapter, in the Nazi-occupied future into which Pavel, the Capeks, and the opera troupe are propelled, some form of plant-magic is at work; soldiers we recognize as SS fall afoul of plant life which erupts from their nose and mouth. There are tantalizing glimpses, also, of the Jewish golem myth, hovering in the background, never fully realized.
But the novella refuses to be rushed into this surreal landscape. Much of the first part is concerned simply with portraying Josef and the brothers Capek as they go about their opera-producing business—clearly Herter has a fondness for this period of Czech history, and for these characters in particular, which outweighs any necessity he might otherwise feel to plunge them more rapidly into what we might call the magical part of the story. The dialogue during these early chapters has a free-wheeling, erratic quality, often demandingly so; actors and producers often exchange banter that challenges us to keep up. It would be dishonest to say this structure is not potentially without its drawbacks. Do we, after all, necessarily share Herter’s love of this era and setting, of these characters? If not, we’re likely to find ourselves twiddling our thumbs, waiting for the meat of the story to arrive. A more probable and happier outcome, however, is that we find Herter’s enthusiasm infectious, and are happy to indulge him as he affectionately paints a picture of an all-too-brief period of central European history.
As with its predecessor, The Luminous Depths speaks to us in an evocative voice:
Stars wink out. Wink back. Above the rooftops, in the distance, the great shape is crossing the sky. As though a giant were crawling behind Spilberk hill, and Pavel were seeing only his head. (p. 71)
As he skulks with the others along Orli street, Josef Capek eyes the paradox of utter destruction side-by-side with a puzzling opposite; here a sudden gaping void choked with ivy where once—hours earlier, it seems—had stood an apparel shop; and beside it, its intact neighbor, desolate with soap on its storefront glass and black curtains drawn across the upper windows like blindfolds across condemned men’s eyes. (p. 107)
And for all that he’s capable of ornate and generous description, Herter also frequently and effectively uses a little to achieve a lot, placing a few words just so, like a couple of strokes of paint which magically do the work of a whole picture: "A sickly sweetness, a tang of iron. The moonlight shines on tapered, silvery red leaves. He lifts a blood-spattered hand to his eyes" (p. 120).
The Luminous Depths defies easy categorization, another trait it has in common with its predecessor. Baxter calls it "a page-turning cracker of a horror story" (p. ix) and, whilst it certainly is that, the description really only goes part-way toward classifying a stubbornly unclassifiable story which contains elements of fantasy and magic realism. Like Baxter, I look forward to One Who Disappeared, the final novella in the trilogy, and one that, on the strength of the first two installments, promises to deliver much.
Finn Dempster lives in Bristol, England. He is usually to be found in his local library, pub, or bookstore, and will get around to doing a PhD one of these days.
You must log in to post a comment.