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Ekaterina Sedia’s Secret History of Moscow (The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature, Part 8)

secrethistory

 

Ekaterina Sedia’s novel The Secret History of Moscow is often seen as a Russian answer to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, but its protagonist Galina is a more interesting and complex personality than Neverwhere’s Richard Mayhew. Where Mayhew (like some of Gaiman’s other heroes) can be frustratingly passive, Galina is an active participant in every situation she finds herself in.

 

When Galina’s sister turns into a bird and flies out the window after giving birth in the bathroom, Galina and two acquaintances follow after her into a secret world beneath the city of Moscow. Down in the underworld they find a number of characters from Russian folklore, a few of the ancient Slavic deities, and an assortment of refugees from the world above who fled underground at various points in Russian history.

 

Although Russian mythology and folklore is a big part of this story, Sedia treats the mythological elements with the same tone of melancholy, ambiguity and skepticism that she applies to the modern world, the people in it and heroes of Russian history such as the Decembrists.

 

There are several different ways to approach mythology. You can think of it as a mess of lies about nonexistent gods and heroes, a collection of amusing or poetic stories, a set of revealed truths with factual validity, a memory of a lost golden age when the world was young and everything was magical- or as something as alive and relevant now as it ever was, though not literal.

 

There’s no point in questioning or probing a set of lies- you just dismiss them. There’s no need to do so with stories that are merely amusing or poetic- you just let yourself be entertained by them. Revealed truths are supposed to be immune to doubt. A memory of a lost golden age can’t really be questioned too closely either. King Arthur was the good guy, and that’s that- even though he ordered the murder of every baby boy in the kingdom to try to prevent Mordred from being born.

 

Anything alive and real and relevant to our lives can be questioned and probed. You can criticize it or adopt a skeptical attitude to it if you choose to, because it’s not separate from our world. Sedia’s tone in The Secret History of Moscow is complex and somewhat cynical, but it seems to me that this is because she takes the mythology too seriously to put it up on a pedestal.

 

If we look at all of the works we’ve examined in this essay, different facets of the mythorealist tendency become apparent with each one:

 

Gaiman- magic and myth in modern settings, the magic is all around us.

Barker- horror and wonder at the same time; horror and wonder are the same thing.

Lukyanenko- using mythology to tell morally serious stories.

Del Toro- seeing out of more than one set of eyes; magical polyvalence.

Bekinski- freedom of imagination combined with realism.

Bullthe magic of place.

Sediataking the myths seriously enough to adopt a critical stance toward them.

 

All of these aspects, in one way or another, are “what happens when myth incarnates in the waking world.”

 

Author ofA Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest

“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)

 

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$2.99 Kindle Edition

The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature, Part 1

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1- Mythorealism

The term “mythorealism” was coined by fantasy author Lani Thompson to describe a particular tendency in modern art and literature, the tendency to create stories in which “myth incarnates in the waking world”:

Mythorealism is what happens when myth incarnates in the waking world. Like its cousin, magical realism, mythorealism encompasses facets of reality which aren’t ordinarily perceived and brings them into the waking world. Reality is more than bones and blood. It is the spirit lurking behind stones and flesh… Myth stepping into Matter… The World being uttered… (Lani Thompson)

Magical realism usually incorporates fantastic elements without comment in a story that is otherwise set in the mundane world. The characters in a story of magical realism don’t generally react with wonder or horror when confronted with something magical; instead they take it for granted. Mythorealist fiction, by contrast, emphasizes the mystery and awe of the numinous and the wonder and horror of encountering the mythic in the “waking” world.

The art and literature I think of as “mythorealist” is not just entertainment or escapism, but a new kind of spiritual practice, free of all dogma and orthodoxy and capable of engaging with higher realities in a spontaneous and unmediated way. The humor, the poetry and the magic of this approach to spirituality represent a modern alternative to what I see as the dead ends of fundamentalist religion and skeptical materialism. This is a form of spirituality for the modern person, to whom “belief” no longer comes naturally- but wonder still does.

Rather than attempting a comprehensive survey of the mythorealist tendency in modern art and literature (which would require a book), I will focus on seven examples: the fiction of Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Ekaterina Sedia, Emma Bull and Sergei Lukyanenko, the movie Pan’s Labyrinth, and the art of Zdzislaw Beksinski. These seven incorporate different aspects of the mythorealist tendency, and I’ll be exploring the implications of that tendency through a discussion of these works.

Coming Soon:

2- Terror in a Handful of Dust: Neil Gaiman and the Sandman

3- The Unbeheld’s Many Mansions: The Fiction of Clive Barker

4- Night Watch: The Gothic Noir of Sergei Lukyanenko

5- The Two Worlds of Pan’s Labyrinth

6- Photographing Dreams: The Art of Zdzisław Beksiński

7- Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks

8- Ekaterina Sedia’s Secret History

Author of A Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest

“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)

Amazon Link

$2.99 Kindle Edition