Saturday, September 24, 2022

Rambling Notes on The Shadow of the Torturer

The Shadow of the Torturer, by Gene Wolfe

rambling notes by Rich Horton

(Cover by Don Maitz)

I read this book in 1980, shortly after it appeared. (My copy is a first edition.) I was already a great fan of Gene Wolfe (that's why I bought the hardcover right away!) and this seemed (still seems) a confirmation of his status as one of the most exciting, most complex, most original SF writers. This is a view I have not abandoned since. 

We discussed the book in my regular book club (run by Mark Tiedemann) for September, so I reread it. Shortly thereafter I attended a panel on Gene Wolfe at Chicon 8. All this was energizing -- I'll be paying extra attention to Wolfe in the near future. For one thing, I'll certainly finish my reread of the New Sun books. And I'll catch up to some of the late Wolfe I haven't yet read. 

But what about The Shadow of the Torturer? In a way, I don't have much to say. Not that there isn't a lot to say, but most of it has been said by others, and I don't think I have the energy to attack that now. Maybe after I've finished the whole set? For now, some, I guess, rambling notes.

What is the book about? I think most people know that -- it's the account of Severian, a member of the Guild of Seekers for Truth and Penitence (which is to say, Torturers), beginning with his youth in the Guild, and following him until he leaves his home city, Nessus. We soon gather that the older Severian is now the Autarch, ruler of this far future Urth. But this volume concerns only his life mostly from roughly puberty until his expulsion from the Guild. 

The central sequence concerns his relationship with the Chatelaine Thecla, an aristocratic woman who has been imprisoned by the Autarch, presumably because her sister is involved with a revolutionary group led by one Vodalus. (Severian very briefly encounters this sister (and Vodalus) in the opening scene of the novel.) Thecla's fate is to be tortured, to attempt to extract information about Vodalus, though more likely really as a sort of petty revenge against her sister. (Thecla may well know nothing.) Severian, as a pubescent boy, falls hard for the beautiful Chatelaine. In his telling he seems to think she returns his affection, but in my reading she at most regards him as sort of a cute puppy, and also as the only source of human companionship available to her. And, of course, as potentially her savior. For, indeed, Severian betrays his oath and gives Thecla a knife with which to commit suicide and thus escape torture. For this crime Severian is expelled from the Guild, and exiled to a remote provincial town, Thrax, to serve as carnifex, or executioner.

While in my memory Severian's time with Thecla dominates this first book, in fact more than half the book concerns Severian wandering the city after his expulsion. In this sequence he meets several important people: the seductive and treacherous woman Agia; her brother Agilus, who covets Severian's sword; the giant Baldanders; the strange Dr. Talos and his group of players, including the beautiful Jolenta; and of course Dorcas, a long dead woman whom he retrieves from a strange pool and resurrects. He is challenged to a duel to the death. He visits the Botanic Gardens, which are much bigger on the inside than the outside. And, significantly, he comes into possession of the jewel called the Claw of the Conciliator.

I've skipped over almost every incident, but that's OK, these are best encountered in the reading. What I remember still is, partly, the mysteries. The famous picture of the armored man in a desolate landscape. The Matachin Tower where the witches live (and the realization that all the guild towers are spaceships.) The hut in the Jungle Garden. The note Severian receives. Dr. Talos' play. 

A couple of things struck me in particular on this rereading. One is that Severian, throughout this book, is very young, perhaps 15 at the conclusion. I had always thought of him as older, perhaps because his narrative voice is that of a much older man. (Wolfe is always very careful to control point of view, and keeping track of who is telling his stories, and from which point of view, is essential. This story is told by an older man with perfect memory, but a man who has his own agenda. (Contrast the games played in the Soldier books, in which the narrator forgets everything each night; or how a story like "Tracking Song" is told: via notes recorded each day by a man who knows little of even his identity.)) It seems important to me now though to keep in mind that Severian is a callow adolescent. This colors in particular his relationships with women ...

Which brings me to the question of women, and their characterization. Wolfe is often criticized for his women characters, and often with good reason. The women in this book -- Thecla, Agia, Dorcas, Jolenta, even the prostitute with whom Severian loses his virginity, all fit, more or less, into the old virgin vs. whore duality. There are complexities, of course, that make that bald dichotomy an over-simplification. And it should be remembered that all these women are seen through the eyes of a callow adolescent (admittedly, perhaps also through the memory of a much older man.) But still -- Thecla as portrayed is an idealized woman. (I am convinced, though, that truly we know little of her real self, only what Severian sees.) Agia is a treacherous schemer. Dorcas is nearly a pure innocent, in that she seems literally newly reborn. We learn little of Jolenta in this volume -- we see her only through Severian's eyes, and Severian's response is sheerly lustful. And of course the the prostitute really is a whore (and one who is imitating Thecla, to boot.) I have seen it suggested that all the women are improbably attracted to Severian -- but I think that's a misreading. It is only Dorcas who may be sincerely attracted to him. We know little (yet) of Jolenta. Thecla's relationship is unequal and constrained by her imprisonment. Agia's motivations are clearly transactional -- there is no reason to believe she cares a whit for Severian. (I will add one thing about Severian's relationship with Thecla -- it is never directly said that he and Thecla have sex, but I think there are sufficient hints that they do.) In sum -- I don't think this book has fully realized female characters -- which is to day that Wolfe's critics aren't wrong -- but I also think, that for this particular book, that is not a weakness, simply a result of the book's focus. (Though I can understand that for some readers, this aspect of the book may be a failure.)

I don't have any overarching conclusion to reach, and I don't think I will until I complete the four volume sequence. I'll simply say that The Book of the New Sun's high reputation is deserved, and this reread of the first volume has not changed my mind.

Finally, a look at two Gene Wolfe signatures -- one stamped on the front cover of my edition of The Shadow of the Torturer, the other written in my copy of The Fifth Head of Cerberus. (Alas, I can't just now put my hands on the copy of my first Best of the Year volume which I got Wolfe to sign next to his story in that book, "Comber".) The signatures are definitely the same!

1 comment:

  1. I think I accidentally deleted a comment here! Sorry to whoever posted it! (I was deleting spam in general and my finger slipped ...)