Soldier of the Mist
Soldier of Arete
Soldier of Sidon
by Gene Wolfe
It’s rare these days that I feel baffled by a novel. Usually, either I feel I grasp the theme of a book at a certain basic level, and understand what’s involved in its imagery; or else it escapes me completely, and flies over my head. This series of books, though, leaves me with the thorough and certain knowledge that I’ll have to re-read it to understand it.
It tells of the adventures of a soldier, a Roman or Italian who fought in the Persian army defeated by the Greeks at Plataea; this soldier, Latro, is a serial amnesiac, who each day loses his memories of the day before. This was caused either by a head wound in battle, or by the curse of a God; the story encourages readers to take it both ways. Latro’s wound, or curse, has opened him up to a range of visionary experiences, and he often sees Gods and apparitions that no-one else can.
The series is nominally about Latro’s attempt to find his way home and recover his faculties, but tends to lose itself in the picaresque adventures with which Latro becomes involved. This is not entirely surprising, perhaps, given the nature of Latro’s injury; lacking memory, he lacks a constant drive, and so lives each day in an improvisatory scramble in which he wakes up and must try to understand where he is and what’s happened to him before making progress toward any kind of goal. This means that he’s oddly passive as a protagonist; he has something that he wants, but he doesn’t always remember what it is.
Nevertheless, Wolfe keeps his story moving smoothly, keeps the prose flowing with an even feel that perfectly evokes the tone of a translated classical text, and above all, plays about with Latro’s handicap in a number of inventive ways. People lie to him, people forget that he forgets, important clues slip by him — but not by the attentive reader. This is where the book begins to become baffling, though. Far more than most stories I can think of, even the most experimental, things happen at multiple levels. What Latro understands makes for a solid adventure story. What is actually happening ... is trickier to grasp. Because he does see the signs of Gods; and those signs have patterns to their recurrence that he, lacking memory, does not see. Even more, perhaps, than with most of Wolfe’s writing, there are multiple narratives, multiple streams of meaning, and if you cannot follow them your understanding of the text will necessarily be limited. For me as a reader, I found it difficult to keep track of the various symbolisms of the different deities at work in the story. And this is why I feel I’ve missed a level of what’s going on; why I know I must reread the series at some point.
In part, the problem is that by the time you understand what’s going on in the book, its devices and symbols, you’re far enough in that much of that symbolism has already been thrown at you. Which I suppose means the book is much like life. But, like all books, it boasts this crucial advantage: you can go through it a second time, or several times, with greater understanding each go-round. That’s something I look forward to, in future.