In a city by the sea which was once called St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, then, much later, St. Petersburg again, there stood a long, thin house on a long, thin street. By a long, thin window, a child in a pale blue dress and pale green slippers waited for a bird to marry her.
“Deathless” is an adaptation of the Russian legend of Koshei Bessmertny, the Tsar of Life, who keeps his soul outside of his body (inside a needle, which is in an egg, which is in a duck, which is in a rabbit, which is in an iron chest, which is buried under a tree) to preserve his immortality. It is told from the perspective of Marya Morevna, the woman who marries Koshei and eventually brings about his demise.
The relationship between Koshei and Marya turbulent and passionate, filled with themes of dominance and submission, of trust and betrayal, but above all their relationship is vibrant and filled with life.
The story of Marya and Koshei is juxtaposed with Russian history during the early half of the 20th century. We see the changes brought about by the Revolution and how they affect young Marya’s family. Valente uses satirical humor in the vein of Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita,” and so the Domoviye (house elves) collectivize and adapt with the changing philosophy of the times.
The story highlights the turmoil and grief of World War II. I was particularly impressed by Valente’s poignant descriptions of the Siege of Leningrad, during which around 1.5 million civilians starved to death. While I studied in Russia, I went on a trip to the Leningrad Blockade Museum, and it was one of those experiences that one can never forget. When our group entered the museum, we were all cheerful and talkative, much as one would imagine American college students to be. By the time we left, we were all silent, which is the only real response that one can have after learning about such a tragic period of history. While “Deathless” deals with some harsh subjects, it is able to convey the same emotionality that I experienced when visiting the Blockade Museum without being overly depressing. You feel deeply for the characters and for the inhabitants of St. Petersburg, but at the same time the Siege does not overshadow the folklore, but rather enhances it, and the book ends exactly as it should.
Valente is the type of author who understands the elusive nature of Firebirds, and that Russian dogs say “Guff Guff” instead of “Bark Bark.” She knows that domoviye must be placated with offerings of shoes and honey, and that heroines must be named Masha, otherwise all is not well with the world. She has a deep understanding of Russian history and culture and is a captivating storyteller.
This book is now officially my favorite of all time. (Yes, it even topped Dostoevsky for me, which is saying a lot.)
“Deathless” is the kind of book that ruins all other books by creating a standard that’s impossible to live up to. Everything else just seems pale and watery by comparison. If you have even the slightest interest in Russia, folklore, or fairy tales, then you should read this one immediately.