Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria

I expected to love A Stranger in Olondria, and then found myself underwhelmed for the first half or so of the book. And then in the later stages it suddenly got wonderful and I was reading a book about reading postcolonially and I’m sure I’ve projected myself and my own issues all over this, but it worked.

From this week’s column:

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The fictional book (a book that exists only in the world of another book) and the reader in a fictional world are two tropes I find myself frequently drawn to. These are in part a mirroring of character and author—most authors, presumably, love and value the idea of books and reading. But it’s also fascinating to consider the book as something less personal and more of an artefact, to imagine how a book might work in this different world- what cultural position it might hold, what it might mean.

Sofia Samatar gives herself an even wider task than this in A Stranger in Olondria; she must imagine an entire literary canon. Olondria is the ‘cultural’ centre of her fictional world, home of its great art and literature.  Into this new world comes Jevick, an island boy culturally far removed from all of this, but raised to love books by his teacher. After the death of his father Jevick inherits the family business along with the opportunity to travel to the land of which he has heard so much. To Jevick Olondria seems magic, full of things he has already learnt of and loved through literature. Yet he is not allowed to settle into the sort of life he had envisioned, exploring his new city’s historical landmarks with a bohemian group of student friends. He is haunted by a spirit with close connections to his home.

As most reviewers know, it’s often harder to write about loving a book than it is to write about hating it, particularly in limited space. The prose that was flawless on the page, or the idea that was brilliantly placed become far less impressive out of context. (Samatar’s own prose is almost the opposite—so full of standout lines that it is sometimes rather oppressive). So it is, often, with Samatar’s imagined books. When Jevick spends a sea voyage reading from “the battered and precious copy of Olondrian Lyrics my master had sent with me” I see nothing in the extracts he provides to elicit the sort of feeling he claims. But I’ve been in his position, finding the right book almost unbearably moving, and so his failure to explain what he loves feels authentic to me. In some bizarre way, this failure is then a success built upon the reader’s status as reader.

And when the reader is also an outsider that connection is made even stronger. The “stranger” part of the book’s title may be even more important than the “Olondria”. Jevick’s own island culture lacks a written language; as does that of Jissavet, a girl whose life becomes entwined with his own. To write, at first, means to write in a language that doesn’t belong to him; the books he has grown up loving can never be about the world he comes from. The culture that produced these great works of literature, he finds, can be oppressive in other ways—is there ever a good reason for the libraries to burn? Can he adapt for his use the language and script of another people in the absence of an organic form of his own? Can cultural centres be shifted; could small islands like Tyom become important in the way Olondria is? And so in its later stages the book becomes also an interrogation of that love for books, and to those of us whose primary cultural markers are in English and of England or America, it all feels rather personal.

And yet books continue to matter. To live on in a book is what Samatar’s characters refer to as “jut”, it’s proof of humanity and a place in the world. Cultures metamorphose but they don’t disappear; languages grow every day. A Stranger in Olondria may not allow its reader to love words uncritically, but that we may (and do) love unconditionally is never in doubt.

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Edit: Or just replace this with everything Abigail Nussbaum says here.

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