Part Three of my Yin Yang myths series is about Life and Death. To talk about Life and Death, I’ve decided to use the medium of Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless, a modern retelling of the Russian folktale Marya Morevna, set in World War II-era St. Petersberg. Then, known as Leningrad.
For those of you unfamiliar with the tale of Koschei the Deathless, he is a common villain in Russian folktales, like the wicked stepmother in many European fairytales. However, Koschei the Deathless is one person with many stories. In Valente’s take on the story of Marya Morevna, Koschei is the personification of Life. His brother, Viy, is Death. In keeping with the Russian folktale theme, the two are called the Tsar of Life and the Tsar of Death. The two Tsars battle each other, and have battled each other, to encroach on each other’s land as much as they can. The idea isn’t to win, as Koschei states, it is to survive. But the two brothers, like some myths of the sun and moon, are one in the same. Koschei has gotten rid of his death (hence the name, Koschei the Deathless) so that he doesn’t lose to his brother. His brother tries to make his world of the dead as similar to the world of the living as he can so the dead don’t miss being alive.
Yet, Viy lives more than his brother. Koschei behaves as though he is dead, fearful of anything in his Kingdom of Life passing into his brother’s Kingdom of Death. He is constantly starving, appearing as bones, hungry for affection. It’s as though by getting rid of his death, he has died and is now perpetually seeking fulfillment; to feel alive. He is lascivious (and yes, this book is considered YA, however, I recommend it for ages sixteen and up) and greedy, always fighting this war against his brother who will always have an army. Even the things Koschei eats are barely alive, as he eats only pickled foods. At one point in the novel, a character calls Koschei pickled himself. And it’s true, he is well-preserved from death, as much as he can be, and yet that preservation has made him so fragile he can hardly live. While his brother moves through his Kingdom of Death without worry or fear. He has nothing to lose because, technically, it’s already been lost. But Koschei has everything to lose. Especially since World War II is about to make its way into Leningrad and stay for nine hundred days.
Valente does a beautiful job in Deathless, writing about life and death, and life and death during war. And not just any war. But the nine hundred day blockade.
When I was doing research for my novel, The Coffin-maker’s Basement, I dove into the blockade and what it looked like and meant for the Russian people. In school, I remember following the Nazis through WWII and when we reached Russia, what I remember being told was that it eventually got too cold for the Nazis to continue the occupation in the country, and so they left. I remember it was said Russia “won” that battle. But a blockade means more than a battle, it means starvation, gunshots, frozen bodies, melting household items such as wallpaper paste into something resembling food. That’s a blockade. And that was what the Russian people went through while the Nazis bombed and burned their homes after breaking their pact. This is all history, and no one peers into this history of the blockade better than Valente does in her novel.
It is for this reason I am glad I read her novel as a part of my research. It was a new take and voice (a non-Russian voice, I might add) on this event in Russian history. While my novel isn’t during WWII, it does feature three generations of Russian men, one born just before WWII came to Russia, one born before the death of Stalin, and the last, our Sasha (first mentioned here) born before the fall of the Soviet Union. It was important for me to know Russia’s history, not just as a way of respecting the culture, but to learn what my characters went through before the novel began, and how their pasts might influence the way they parent, and/or the way they experience the world. And that’s just the living’s point of view. Death, self-named Mort, (also mentioned here) has collected every person that has ever died. What was it like to collect the souls of those that had starved, and what was it like for her? Mort is a sensitive, self-taught character. She just showed up in the world one day, unseen by anyone, and has used the living as her teachers. For all intents and purposes, they’re her friends. Her only friends, though Mort has wondered about Life. The way Mañju wondered about Saka in Part One of this series.
So, I have these two characters; one alive, one existing, and have done miscellaneous research both for the novel and for the sake of culture. But all of this talk of life and death hasn’t gotten me down in the dumps, as a matter of fact, it’s made me more comfortable as I have found these questions floating around the back of my head: what is death about? What does it mean?
We often wonder and philosophize about life, but death we avoid. It’s uncomfortable and personal. However, a lot of beauty can be found when we confront and comfort what is personal to us. A perfect example of this is Valente’s lines on war in her novel.
“A war story is a black space. On the one side is before and on the other side is after, and what is inside belongs only to the dead.”
The quote is sad. I won’t argue that it isn’t. However, there is a beauty in it being spoken about. A beauty in its statement as private. A beauty in how simply these lines are stated.
As I write in my novel, “death is a sad, not a bad thing.” We want death to be bad, so desperately do we want Death to be a sadistic, skeletal man in a black cloak wielding a scythe. But what if Death isn’t like that? What if she loves her souls and tries to help them move on? What if she can’t touch the world she exists in? What if she has a name she gave herself because she was so used to being around people?
That’s uncomfortable; Death as human. Death, quite possibly, as a temperate, sensitive, shy angel.
And so I ask one simple question: what is the meaning of death if it is so similar to life? One cannot be talked about without the other. In Valente’s novel, Life and Death are brothers. In mine, Death and a living coffin-maker have a relationship though they’ve never met. So what is the meaning of death? I have my answer, after all, I’ve been meditating on it for as long as The Coffin-maker’s Basement has been going through its process. I’m grateful for the journey writing this novel has taken me on.
I will leave you with one last quote from Deathless to get your wheels turning: “The rapt pupil will be forgiven for assuming the Tsar of Death to be wicked and the Tsar of Life to be virtuous. Let the truth be told: There is no virtue anywhere. Life is sly and unscrupulous, a blackguard, wolfish, severe. In service to itself, it will commit any offense. So, too, is Death possessed of infinite strategies and a gaunt nature- but also mercy, also grace and tenderness. In his own country, Death can be kind.”
Thanks for reading,
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