Rereading Gene Wolfe

The Fifth Head of Cerberus: Wolfe’s Holy Trinity

The first novel by Gene Wolfe that received acclaim from critics and fans (you’ll recall, per the introduction, that Operation Ares isn’t going to be covered in this reread) is, as almost everything related to this author, significant—by the fact that it’s not quite a novel. As in one of the mysteries of the Catholic faith, it’s a trinity that is one; in literary parlance, a mosaic: three interlinked novellas, telling different aspects of the same story.

Which story is this? This is never a simple question when reading Gene Wolfe. He doesn’t make it any easier for the reader—nor should he. Wolfe’s stories are labyrinths, and one should be very careful to enter them. As with any book, in fact, but in Wolfe’s case one tends to get lost in trying to understand things too clearly.

Attention: spoilers.

The book is called The Fifth Head of Cerberus, published in 1972. The first novella, which goes by the same title, was also published originally in 1972, in Orbit 10, an anthology edited by Damon Knight. It takes us to the distant future, to the double planets of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix, colonized originally by French-speaking settlers. The title refers to a statue of the mythological creature who protects the gates of Hades and also guards the entrance of the house, for that same reason called Maison du Chien (House of the Dog). The story is narrated in first person by the protagonist, a boy who lives in the Maison, the house of his father, a scientist who conducts rather unorthodox experiments.

In time, and after many circumvolutions, we are led to believe that those experiments are biological, more particularly related to cloning. But who is the protagonist a clone of? The boy, simply called Number 5 (although he does have a name, but we are never privy to this information in the first place, so we’ll call him Five for short from now one), is being subjected to a few of those experiments, along with his brother, David; and interviews that make Five believe he will one day replace his father. But things are never made clear to him, or to the reader, for that matter.

During his education, Five also meets his aunt, Jeannine, a reclusive scientist through whom we first learn of Veil’s Hypothesis: the aboriginals of Sainte Anne were shapeshifters, and killed the first colonists from Earth, thus taking their places and mimicking them to such an extent that they forgot who they were originally, and now everyone on both planets (they are in Sainte Croix, the sister planet) are in fact aboriginals. We also learn later that Jeannine is Dr. Veil, and that she’s the daughter of a previous version of Five’s father.

(Speaking of surprises, there are plenty of clues that give away Five’s real name, and all the critics and exegetes of Wolfe’s work agree on one particular choice. Even though this is common knowledge among his constant readers, I’ll spare you this possible spoiler, hoping you may enjoy the pleasure of the discovery.)

The first person to properly explain to Five the process of cloning is a visitor from Earth, a Dr. Marsch, an anthropologist. He wants to locate Dr. Veil, and that’s when Five learns the truth about his aunt and about himself. This novella ends with the imprisoning of Five for murder, apparently of his father—he had expressed the desire to kill him a few times throughout the story, for the hate he feels for the all the pain the experiments brought to him.

I said earlier that things are never made clear to Five, and that is the truth. But Wolfe tends to take the reader by the hand, in a way. More or less like a concerned parent would take a child by the hand and guide her through a path filled with things gorgeous and of deeply impossible understanding, never stopping once but from time to time saying, “I’ll explain later”—and, of course, never doing so, because the child will soon grow and understand for her own the meaning of all she saw; or rather, her version of it. This is called maturing. And for this reason many of Gene Wolfe’s books (including this one) should be considered Bildungsromans—from the German, a “novel of formation,” or simply a coming-of-age story. The first novella can be read as such—among other things. (But let’s stop here.)

 

But then comes the second novella: A Story,” by John V. Marsch.

This story seems to bear no relation whatsoever with the first novella—at first glance. Unlike the first (and the last) story, this one is preceded by an epigraph. The quote, by the Catholic mystic St. John of the Cross, begins with “If you want to possess all, you must desire nothing./If you want to become all, you must desire to be nothing.” Become being the keyword here, because this is a narrative about the shapeshifting aboriginals. And what they might be or not be.

The author of this narrative is, naturally, the anthropologist from Earth who visits the father of Five in the first novella. He is not present inside this story, which is very conservative in terms of storytelling. It’s basically a myth-telling of sorts, being the narrative of the brief life of two brothers, John Eastwind and John Sandwalker (the name “John” signifying only a man, “all boy children being named John”).

The narrative is a bit pastoral in the beginning. After a sort of introduction when we witness the birth of the brothers and their naming (Sandwalker because he gets out of his mother and his feet touch the ground immediately, while Eastwind is named so because he came at dawn, with a cold wind blowing across the mountains), we follow Sandwalker in his thirteenth birthday (but we are immediately informed that “the years of his world, where the ships turned back, were long years”). So, he is older in Earth years, but we can’t know for sure how much older. We know, however, that he is sent to the priest because he was a “food-bringer, though he dreamed strange dreams.”

In his walk, he meets the Shadow Children, another race entirely, though they are not entirely visible. In fact, their apparent incorporeality is due to the fact that they are shapeshifters themselves, but they are not necessarily friendly to the race of Sandwalker, that we can safely assume now are the aboriginals of Sainte Anne. Sandwalker becomes a friend of the Shadow Children, a kind of blood brother, and this enables him to get their help later, as in the folk stories of old Earth (Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales comes to mind).

Throughout the story, we get a few hints that Sandwalker’s people are shapeshifters as well, though they don’t seem to transform at will, only when circumstances require them to. One of Wolfe’s critics, Marc Aramini, claims that they can change into trees because of their intimate relation with them; at one point, a girl Sandwalker meets tells him that her daughter is also the daughter of a tree, to which he replies, “We were all engendered in women by trees.” This might be read as purely symbolical, but we can’t forget the Veil’s Hypothesis.

In the end of this story, Sandwalker meets his end at the hands of another tribe, in what seems to be a fact of life—they hunt and eat each other constantly. His own death is an enigma, since he is killed by his own brother Eastwind, who has become an ally to the other tribe. But suddenly he kills Eastwind—and he can’t already be sure if he is really Sandwalker, or if he is Eastwind and took the shape of the other. Nor can we be sure of that.

Before he dies, though, he spends time in a hole with others like him and other Shadow Children—who might be Earthpeople or their descendants. (They also mention Atlantis or Africa as possible origin lands for them, but they simply can’t remember.) An utterance by one of them, the Old Wise One, is particularly revealing: “All the great political movements were born in prisons.” Sandwalker then asks what are political movements. Though he knows what it is like to be imprisoned, he has no idea of what is a prison-as-facility—but the third novella will show us more in that regard.

 

V.R.T. leads us to another kind of labyrinth, namely, the bureaucracy of prisons. While the first novella was a run-of-the-mill first person narrative and the second one a folk tale in the third person, this story is a mix, containing a report and several interrogation sessions with a prisoner, and also several interviews with different people regarding the behavior of the Annese, as the French colonists officially call the aboriginals. The story (a small mosaic of remembrances, contained in the larger mosaic that is this novel) takes place in Saint Anne; though we can’t possibly know for sure when in the larger narrative the story happens, we can determine with reasonable certainty that the events here happen after the first novella. For the prisoner is John V. Marsch, and at some point he talks about this visit to the scientist in Sainte Croix and his cloned son.

At first, we don’t know what he is accused of. This is not made very clear throughout the story, although we are informed later that he killed a youth who, along with his father, worked as a guide for him into the Annese wilderness. Indeed, his behavior according to his journals is of contempt for the natives, who are seen as less than human, even though they look like us. During the trip, Marsch talks a lot with V.R.T., the boy, who explains to him many things about the aboriginals and the Shadow Children. The whole affair is conducted by Marsch as if V.R.T. and his father were merely very poor descendants from the early settlers, instead of the aboriginals they proudly claim to be. The entire novella is full of dialogue between humans who insist that the guides are also human. But Veil’s Hypothesis looms over their heads: what if they all are shapeshifters pretending to be human… and forgot what they initially were?

In his essay on The Fifth Head…, Marc Aramini seems to conclude that this is a strange regime the likes of which were virtually never seen before, but if you’ve ever lived through a Latin American dictatorship, as I did, you’ll see that this kind of thing is quite normal. Even if I weren’t Brazilian, however, I’d have no difficulties in recognizing the behavior of the military as something terribly common in a colony. This novella brings to mind the British government in Australia (or, to remain in step with the story, the French government in Indochina), regarding its treatment of the natives. The whole narrative, therefore (of which I wrote a lot and yet barely scratched the surface), can also be read as a colonial narrative. A narrative of memory and identity, both of individuals (such as Five and Marsch) and of peoples (the aboriginals, the Shadow Children, and the human colonists).

I almost forgot (aha) to add one thing: an interesting aspect of this reread is the critical material. I had already started to read Michael Andre-Driussi, but I also started to read the works of John Clute (Strokes), Marc Aramini (Between Light and Shadow), and Robert Borski (Cave Canem). Of these, the Borski can be read for free here. I will quote from them on occasion, but I must ask you to keep in mind that my articles are not supposed to be fully fleshed out critical essays. First and foremost, they are the fruit of my experience reading Gene Wolfe, and they must be taken at face value. I am interested in discussing a few things that pervade his work, namely the role of memory and the Catholic symbolism.

There is quite an effort on the part of most of the aforementioned critics to put some meaning into this story. In 14 Articles, Andre-Driussi writes one of the most delicious texts about The Fifth Head…, called “Naming the Star of The Fifth Head of Cerberus,” where he investigates where in the galaxy the story takes place. This is a work of love, and even if I couldn’t care less about matters of localization, I enjoyed this article hugely.

The other of my favorite texts at this earliest point of the reread is John Clute’s “Gene Wolfe,” where he proceeds to tell us about Wolfe’s amusement at precisely such attempts of interpretation. Wolfe is considered one of the best writers in fantasy and science fiction and also one of the most difficult to understand. Clute considers him “a man whose fiction offers more problems of interpretation than that of any other author in the field,” and he is right.

Aramini, on the other hand, insists that Wolfe’s texts are meant to be deciphered because Wolfe was an engineer by trade, and his engineer’s mind is of such order that he leaves no element of his fiction to chance. I tend to agree with him in this regard, because of The Book of the New Sun and the plethora of apparently alien elements he shows us that are simply displaced from their original ages (as the use of ancient words tells us). However, I’m really not that interested in deciphering absolutely everything down to the last detail. I want to enter the labyrinth and slowly reach its center. The exit—well, do we ever exit the labyrinth of words and ideas of a writer’s work? And, what’s most important: do we want to?

As in many cases regarding postmodern texts (and Wolfe’s narratives fits the bill well), the act of reading and giving meaning tells us more about ourselves than about the author. Wolfe (as it’s clear from the Clute text) probably had oodles of fun at our cost. If that’s the case, I’m glad he enjoyed himself. He deserved it. And so do we whenever we read his stories.

 

See you all on Thursday, July 11th for a discussion of Peace

Fabio Fernandes started writing in English experimentally in the ‘90s, but only began to publish in this language in 2008, reviewing magazines and books for The Fix, edited by the late lamentedEugie Foster. He’s also written articles and reviews for a number of sites and magazines, including Fantasy Book Critic, Tor.com, The World SF Blog, Strange Horizons, and SF Signal. He’s published short stories in Everyday Weirdness, Kaleidotrope, Perihelion, and the anthologies Steampunk II, The Apex Book of World SF: Vol. 2, Stories for Chip, and POC Destroy Science Fiction. In 2013, Fernandes co-edited with Djibrilal-Ayad the postcolonial original anthology We See a Different Frontier. He’s translated several science fiction and fantasy books from English to Brazilian Portuguese, such as Foundation, 2001, Neuromancer, and Ancillary Justice. In 2018, he translated to English the Brazilian anthology Solarpunk (ed. by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro) for World Weaver Press. Fabio Fernandes is a graduate of Clarion West, class of 2013.

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