Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Review: 'The Willow King' by Meelis Friedenthal, trans. by Matthew Hyde

I am consistently looking for more foreign fiction to read but, since I can only read in three (modern) languages, naturally I have to rely on translations. Thankfully, publishers such as Pushkin Press keep coming to my aid by publishing brilliant fiction in translation. I was first intrigued by The Willow King because of its title and cover, it gave me that fairy tale-tingle down the spine. Also, I miss my university days so I loved going back to that exciting time through Friedenthal's book. Thanks to Pushkin Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 01/08/2017
Publisher: Pushkin Press
A deeply engrossing, philosophical novel by a rising Estonian literary star.

Wrapped into his long coat against the incessant rain and accompanied by a strange parrot, the young Dutch student Laurentius arrives in Estonia on an icy day at the end of the seventeenth century. On the run from a dark past and suspected of heresy, he has fled to Tartu, 'The City of the Muses', to study at the famous university. Laurentius has been searching obsessively for a cure for the mysterious melancholy which torments him, and is desperate to understand where the soul comes from, and how it relates to the body. But the more he searches, the more he is attracted to the world of instinct, superstition and magic of the peasants in the surrounding countryside. A world which he knew as a child, but which now persecutes him in dreams and visions which increasingly blur with reality.
In this astonishingly atmospheric novel, Friedenthal enters the bowels of Shakespeare's century to tell the story of anguished modernity, and of the advent of the Age of Enlightenment - while medicine is still progressing on the lines of humours, fears and alchemy, and the dark North dreams of radient antiquity, of symposia in Mediterranean gardens among the sweet hum of the bees - the birds of the muses, the souls of poets.
The Willow King is a philosophical novel at heart, which is something I haven't read in a while. As such, it actually took me some time to get used to the writing. Although Friedenthal creates a rather straightforward and chronological narrative, he gives himself, and his protagonist Laurentius, a lot of time to ponder. A walk isn't just a walk, it is a time to think and to question, but also not necessarily a time for answers. This means that throughout the novel the reader will be challenged to put aside their interest in the narrative and consider the larger themes Friedenthal wants to address. Once I got into this rhythm or narrative-pondering-narrative-pondering I really enjoyed it, but it took me almost half the book to truly get into. However, with this structure Friedenthal does capture, I believe, the essence of a young mind. Everything has a meaning, things don't happen by accident and it all relates back to your own life. Your studies become essential to your mind and affect everything around you.

At the heart of The Willow King is the body-soul relationship, something I studied myself at school. For a long time, scientists and philosophers were obsessed with "finding" the soul in the body. If we had a soul, as the Bible clearly tells us, it must be somewhere inside of us. Some of the greatest minds wrote about this, from Aristotle to Decartes, and Friedenthal engages with all of their arguments in The Willow King. His protagonist being a student gives him the perfect setup to discuss these without boring the reader and his quest to find an answer also becomes the reader's. The novel is set in the 17th century, a time we consider modern, yet Friedenthal shows us how this was a period of history in which science and superstition walked hand in hand. Witches and demons are still real, as is the evil eye, and scientists tread a fine line between the factual and the supernatural. Just think of the alchemists and their obsession with making gold. This time in history is fascinating and Friedenthal brings it to life in a very realistic way.  For more on this please do check out Joanna Demers' review, she knows a lot more about it than I do.

Meelis Friedenthal's writing is incredibly descriptive, in an atmospheric way. The constant rain, the threat of hunger that lingers at the edges of Dorpat, Laurentius' melancholy, it all feels credible and real. Friedenthal really manages to put the reader into Laurentius' mind, switching to first person to show us his dreams and relaying to us all his thoughts and worries. As such, it's not necessarily a very uplifting novel, but it is stunning. It borrows from a lot of different genres, horror, suspense, fantasy, but never truly commits to any. This could have gone spectacularly wrong, but it works for The Willow King. As I said above, it took me a while to get into this book but it enormously picked up for me towards the end. Strangely, things started coming together for me when they did for Laurentius as well, a sign that Friedenthal knows exactly what he is doing. Despite the relative heaviness of its topic, The Willow King is a quick read. As Friedenthal constantly keeps his readers questioning whether the supernatural events are truly happening or not, he spurs them on and makes them as desperate to find an answer as Laurentius. Matthew Hyde does an excellent job at translating Friedenthal's prose and capturing the atmosphere he tries to create.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

Although The Willow King left me at times confused, by the end Friedenthal truly had me in her grasp. The novel will leave you with a great many questions to ask of our world, which is not a bad thing. I'd recommend this to those interested in philosophy and history.

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