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The Only Murderer Is the Reader

By Jeffrey Zuckerman.

Nest of Worlds, Marek Huberath, Restless Books, 2014

Within Marek Huberath’s Nest of Worlds, newly translated from Polish by Michael Kandel, a book crops up again and again in the hands of different characters. Its cover is seemingly embedded with colored stones that spell out its title, which is also Nest of Worlds.

Such a metatextual conceit (and we will come to see that it is, indeed, a metatextual conceit) befits this work of science fiction. The quasi-futuristic dystopia of Davabel bears all the typical accoutrements: street numbers in the thousands, frozen foods reheated with still-embedded bits of cardboard. And yet, as we descend into the novel’s second half, we read nested versions of this eponymous book that take us to wholly different landscapes, the fonts changing in each successive layer. The name may remain the same, but the characters do not, and the worlds in which they live run on different rules. Even two characters reading the same copy of Nest of Worlds find the differences troubling:

“What are you talking about, woman?” Gary looked at her in astonishment. “Cedar. The guy’s name is Cedar.”

Daphne turned, confused . . .

“Jaspers,” he went on, “is a common criminal . . . Cedar was the one who became a guard.”

“And Heather, what will happen to her?” Daphne felt close to the heroine . . .

“There’s been no Heather yet.”

This mysterious book—which another character realizes “was active, not passive, [and] changed every time . . . He keeps going back to page one, experimenting”—turns out to be only one component of a world that we realize is vastly different from the decaying Eastern-bloc-esque totalitarian state Davabel echoes.

For one thing, there is something in the atmosphere that slowly but inexorably degrades people. Those with lighter hair, we learn, will have it worse, and as each person on this alternate planet is forced to travel through four capital-L Lands before dying, this fact underlies a caste system with rankings that differ in each Land. In the novel’s opening scene, Gavein, a raven-haired man who everybody calls a “black,” gets on a plane from his previous Land for the Land of Davabel and temporarily says good-bye to Ra Mahleiné. He knows that changes in atmosphere and dilations of time will keep him young, while his attractive blonde wife will have aged and weakened upon her arrival, by land, to Davabel. There, she will be spat upon and beaten up because she is “a white”—an indictment that in its casual reversal of hierarchy casts an uncomfortable light on contemporary racism in the Western world.

A reader who stopped turning the pages so early in Nest of Worlds could be forgiven for presuming the novel to be a commentary upon these uncivilized social mores. By the book’s end, however, these clashes of castes will have been set aside and even forgotten. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would be a sign of weak writing, or a story that had gotten out of the writer’s hands. But it is no accident in Huberath’s design that his book keeps shifting in its perspectives and ambitions.

For another thing that sets Davabel (and the planet on which it exists) apart is that every person there is bestowed with a Significant Name that foretells how they die. How exactly this Name is ascertained never becomes entirely clear—although there are hints that it may be as deeply embedded as one’s DNA. But by the novel’s midpoint, something strange is happening: people everywhere in Davabel are dying, and there are two incontrovertible facts about these deaths: first, that they happen entirely in accordance with their Significant Names—an established rule of this world—and, second, that Gavein knew them, met them, or had even looked at them.

“Let’s put our cards on the table,” said Gavein [to the detective investigating this coincidence]. “Edda told you about my death-dealing ability, and you are linking that to the tragedy of the Tobianys? . . .”

“Cards on the table, that’s a good idea. Over the last six weeks, more people have died in this area than in the rest of Davabel. Actually, in the rest of Davabel not one person has died . . . These data come from the Division of Hierarchy and Classification. The people there supplied them at my request, and they are as amazed as I am.”

As this strange twist is firmly established, the effects of a population learning about a basilisk-like man in their midst becomes manifest. The center of Davabel empties out as people move to apartments in the city’s outskirts. The government attempts to intervene, but officials die as they come into contact with Gavein, who wonders as much as the reader does at the situation’s improbability. Somehow the people who remain close to him—especially Ra Mahleiné, but including the detective investigating his case—may suffer, but they stay alive.

Should a science-fiction story be discounted for presenting us with implausible scenarios? The contradiction inherent in the generic label—verifiable “science” against untrammeled “fiction”—implies that authors should be granted carte blanche to imagine anything they wish so long, of course, as they  can convince their readers of their constructs’ solidity. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness comes to mind as an extraordinarily solid work of art. The world of Winter, seen by the human envoy Genly Ai, is wholly foreign, yet convincingly real; implements even exist to break the ice that has formed on a beer in between sips. Likewise, China Miéville’s Embassytown allows us to suspend our disbelief in its depiction of creatures that speak with two mouths and cannot lie. When a novel presents us with a world visibly different from our own, but fails to convince us that this fictional reality still adheres to a coherent set of rules, the spell is broken. The muddy foundation becomes disappointingly visible through the timber frame.

And so, halfway through Nest of Worlds, I found myself wondering why Marek Huberath’s reputation was so firmly established in Poland as one of the strongest science-fiction writers since Stanislaw Lem. He could make me care about his characters—I wanted to reach out and hug Ra Mahleiné as she was transported into Davabel, hooded and whipped like an Abu Ghraib prisoner because of her fair hair—but I could not believe that everyday people in Davabel ate frozen pizza, followed by heaping portions of pasta, nor that movie stars and passersby on the street were dying en masse simply because Gavein had even indirectly laid eyes upon them, while others were staying alive in his presence.

Perhaps this is because Huberath is a writer driven by ideas, not worlds. Davabel’s hierarchy of hair colors, nearly forgotten by this midpoint in the novel, gives way to a different sort of hierarchy as Gavein, intent on furrowing out the cause of these deaths, begins reading Nest of Worlds. There is something literally magical about this act. Ra Mahleiné, in pain, tells Gavein: “When you’re in that book, nothing happens to me. I can read for hours, take a nap, watch TV, and nothing . . . You tell him too, Lorraine. When he reads, isn’t it peaceful for us?”

Here, Huberath’s book manifests the nest of its title. The book-within-a-book is set in roman type, but as one of the characters therein begins reading his own copy of Nest of Worlds, we see the book-within-a-book-within-a-book, set in italic type—then a book-within-a-book-within-a-book-within-a-book set in bold type, and then an even deeper layer set in bold and italic type. Once the flip of a page pulls us suddenly back to the level of Gavein trying to work out his curse, the letters seem oddly thin and rarefied—as if they were typographic markers of a world one step above Gavein’s.

This thought points toward the real questions Huberath has set out to explore in his novel. Gavein reads in the introduction to his copy of Nest of Worlds that “in every book, you were reading something that was not what others read . . . the sense, the content. When you open a book, its characters come to life: they talk, fight, love, eat. But when you close the book, what happens to them?”

On the face of it, this question seems silly. The conventional novel does not seem to sustain the notion of free will. Even before we read its first line, we know that its end has been determined, that its author has let some characters succeed and others fail, has let some live and will have others die. Even choose-your-own-adventure novels have had their various endings thoroughly plotted out; we simply have to flip to the ending we like.

Zef, Gavein’s friend who works at a bookstore, muses dismissively about mystery novels: “Emptiness and cliché. The only one who can’t be the murderer is the reader.” We tear though thrillers to see if the good guy really does win; we turn the pages of a romance novel to see if they will live happily ever after, despite knowing the rules of the genre.

We only laugh at the idea that Anna Karenina might live if we don’t read the final pages of Tolstoy’s doorstop because we have already been told that she will throw herself under the train. But we do not know how our own copy of Nest of Worlds will end. (If the copy you read is the same as mine, I’d do best not to give away the ending). There is a discomfiting moment when we as readers could stop reading, could forestall the possibility in our minds that Zef and Ra Mahleiné and Gavein and the many other characters embedded in the story will eventually go the way of all flesh.

The abovementioned “metatextual conceit” of calling his book Nest of Worlds is a masterly decision on Huberath’s part. He wants us to consider the limits and artificiality of fiction, to realize that what we hold in our hands is constructed as much by our minds as by his work. When we fall in love with his characters, when we fear for their lives, we weigh up our free will against that of the characters. Let us say that they beg us not to turn the pages, to let them live when giving in to our subconscious drive for narrative completion would hasten their deaths. If these characters assert their free will, we must give up ours. And if we assert our free will, the characters become bound to their story, and lose their own free will. It is a heart-wrenching conundrum. And behind this conflict is Marek Huberath, manifesting the author—who, as described by Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”

Dedalus formulates this conception of the artist as part of his revolt against the Catholic religion and against the orthodoxy that has constrained his mind. Marek Huberath follows this conception not as an act of rebellion, but as an assertion of the hierarchy he believes in. Very much an atheist, as his translator concedes in a personal essay for Words Without Borders, “he feels at peace only when he has empty air beneath his feet” and depends entirely on his own being for survival. In some ways, this perspective is a solipsistic one—but if his belief makes better readers of us, it can be forgiven.

And because of this, certain authorial missteps—forgetting to clarify the origin of these Significant Names, presenting a revelation one or two scenes after the reader has already intuited it, failing to thoroughly stabilize the world being dreamed up—almost seem intentional, as correctives to the readerly desire to sink into the book. The various twists and turns of Nest of Worlds makes it the closest approximation we can find, in our world, to the perpetually metamorphosing work of art Gavein holds in his hands. And so I am almost inclined to call Nest of Worlds, in spite of its occasional shortcomings and because of its fully realized ambitions, a masterwork not of science fiction, but of Polish fiction. It is a book where characters live and die, and—more importantly—where we struggle with the fact that they do.

Jeffrey Zuckerman is Digital Editor of Music & Literature Magazine. His writing and translations have appeared in the Yale Daily News Magazine, Best European Fiction, and The White Review. In his free time, he does not listen to music.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, February 18th, 2014.