Nov 9, 2019

Jo Walton: Lent

Jo Walton needs little introduction for fantasy and sf readers - which is surprising, given how far most of her works stray from our usual comfort zone ... Lent is no exception. Set in Florence towards the end of the 15th century, it tells the story of the last years in the life of Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican monk, reformer and for a short time, de-facto ruler of Florence. I must confess that I wasn't familiar with this historical figure before reading Lent. While Lent is obviously thouroughly researched (Walton provides an afterword in which she details where and why she strayed from the historical facts), it features at least some of the things we'd expect to see in a fantasy novel, and even some strong sfnal elements. There's actual demons from hell, subtle magic and elements of time travel, alternate history or both, depending on how you look at it.

 I felt thoroughly entertained and deeply impressed by Lent. Most of all, I think, I was taken by the rhythm of the novel, which has a lot to do with its subject matter. Although its narrative voice feels slow and delibarete, the story covers a lot of ground in a short time by focussing on its key moments. Grand political moments like Girolamo negotiating the fate of Florence with Charles VIII stand side-to-side with his very personal reflections on friendship, justice and, most of all, pride and vanity. As you would expect from a true Christian, Girolamo keeps castigating himself for his pride in believing himself to be the chosen saviour of Florence - still, he can't but act as a prophet and saviour. As it turns out, the book hinges on the idea of pride, making a very interesting point both about both solidarity and our notions of the protagonist and the execeptional role she or he has to play in a story.

But mostly, I feel that Lent is a novel about these three things: 1. The compassionate portrayal of a Christian reformer who is, however much we might like him, a child of his time and a proponent of a problematic (to say the very least) ideology. Yes, Lent's Girolamo is against torture and even feels occassionally that society and the Christian church tend to be unfair in their treatment of women; however, he also believes in the cleansing power of sword and fire (the latter being exemplified by his "bonfire of the vanities", which will probably send a chill own the spine of modern readers who are familiar with the history of book-burnings.) 2. Spiritual love, an especially about the cruelty implicit in the idea of a loving, parent-like god who can punish you by redrawing his love and thereby let you fall effectively into depression. Girolamo truly feels his love of God to be the core of his very being; and when the twist halfway through the novel (no, I certainly won't tell!) puts his love in a totally new perspective, he has all reasons to just disintegrate, and the only way forward for him is to find a wholly new perspective on this mortal world. 3. An sfnal examination of the idea of eternal repetition that, while rendered extremely personal by the novel, is actually staggeringly cosmic.

The first of these three things makes Lent an exceptional historical novel, putting us in the shoes and in the head of a person that lives under very different social and material circumstandes, following a very different set of valus. The second adds a layer of psychological interest - I think it is really one of the ideas of Lent that depression is something that might have been experienced as a severance of one's connection to god in Savonerola's times. Walton's depiction of hell (which comes up in only a few short, but important chapters) expands on this idea, with hell being characterised as an environment that enforces hostility in all acts of communication between its denizens. Girolamo works through his "depression" and even finds his way to a new kind of appreciation of the material world, which endears him further to the reader.
The third point makes Lent a fascinating novel of ideas. Here we have a relatively short novel with a very tight local and temporal focus that still implies timespans on the scale of Cixin Liu's Trisolaris trilogy. And while it does so on the basis of Christian theology, it's pretty easy to translate the core ideas into a less mystical framework.

Lent is one of the few unafraid novels that make use of the whole toolbox of great storytelling - a psychologically deep novel of ideas that is fully aware of the power of the fantastic. I like it even better than Among Others, which is, as I must confess, the only other novel by Walton I have read ... but that's something that I'm planning to change, having just ordered her Thessaly omnibus.

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