The Habitation of the Blessed, by Catherynne M. Valente
Posted February 10, 2011on:
The Habitation of the Blessed, by Catherynne Valente
where I got it: library, but I’ll be purchasing a copy shortly
why I read it: heard it was very good, although I admit, at first I was apprehensive.
Two Vignettes, to set the scene.
* * *
During mystical conversations with friends and lovers, I used to quip that I’d like, one day, to be reincarnated as a tree. To me, a tree has always been a thing of beauty. Home and resource to birds and animals, immortal via its seeds that are carried far and wide. After reading Catherynne M. Valente’s The Habitation of the Blessed, I will still joke around that I’d very much like to one day be reincarnated as a tree, but to me the punchline will taste heavier with meaning.
Everyone knows the story of the Garden of Eden. but do you remember the end? where Adam and Eve are told if they leave the garden “they shall surely die”? Would they have been immortal, had they stayed?
* * *
I don’t feel qualified to review this book. I don’t have the education, the experience with religious history, or the vocabulary. I come at The Habitation of the Blessed as an innocent. In the words of a shy emo pop singer who has gone on to better things – “these words are all I have so I write them, so you need them just to get by. . . “ No words I say can do this book justice, but I’ll do the best I can.
Catherynne Valente’s The Habitation of the Blessed is in a word, sublime. I have never read anything like this before. Intimate and evocative and powerful, the price paid to experience it is that one can never again come to it with innocence, never again read it for the first time.
To simplify the plot greatly, Brother Hiob is on a religious mission to find the grave of Prestor John, the mythical Priest King of the East. Nearly to his goal, Hiob is shown a tree that grows books as fruit. Told he can take only three volumes, Hiob removes a book by Prestor John, one by the Prestor’s wife Hagia, and a book of children’s stories by the famous royal storyteller Imtithal. Like fruit, these books are perishable. Hiob races time to transcribe them as they rot before his eyes. I can sympathise – I ran out of pages to read as the same speed as he is running out of pages to transcribe. It was truly a sad thing for both of us, and became rather meta.
Hiob reads and transcribes from the different books for an hour at a time, so we, the reader, get a few pages of each at a time.
I could go on and on about Prestor John and his beautiful wife and how she frightens him. I could give snippets of the book that spoke to me in ways I’ve never been spoken to before. Too quickly would I babble like a brook and get everything damp and out of order. Besides, it wouldn’t matter what I told you, it wouldn’t matter until you experienced it. This isn’t a novel you read, it’s one you experience.
In Paradise, allegory and truth are identical. Except of course, if you’ve already made up your mind as to what is allegory, and what is truth. At that point, paradise can become hell. John sees all the markers he needs to believe he is in the original Garden of Eden. But he has trouble with the inhabitants of Pentexore, who quite obviously were not made in God’s image, because of course, everyone knows God is an old white dude with a flowing beard, and that he placed man above all animal creatures. The people John meets are the creatures of allegory, of metaphor, and they have no interest whatsoever in Latin, or in Christ. Is it God’s will that John minister to them, or that he accept them for who and what they are?
I loved the philosophical conversations John has with sheep-trees, gryphons, anthropterons and blemmye. He is steeped in his beliefs, and them in theirs. I worry that my religious Christian friends may be offended by some of these passages, but to me, they were equally enlightening and hilarious.
As important as Prestor John and Hagia are, my favorite portions of the book were Imtithal’s stories, the moral tales she tells to the royal children. Some I think she makes up on the spot, others are the myths of her people and her homeland. I wish I grew up on these stories, that someone told them to me at bedtime. Like everyone who reads Imithal’s narratives, I want her to be my nanny too.
If you are going to read one book this year, read The Habitation of the Blessed.