A little while ago I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Konrad Walewski for the Polish version of F&SF. Along the way, he pressed upon me Nest of Worlds by Marek S. Huberath. The novel is apparently successful in Poland, but they have been unable to find any publisher to take it in this country, despite the fact that there is a very fine translation by Michael Kandel. Having now read the book, I find this mystifying. Not that this is an obvious bestseller: it is very weird, as I shall endeavour to show, but at the same time it has the sort of bravura conceit that should win it an appreciative audience.
The problem is: how to describe the book without giving too much away. Or maybe I shouldn’t worry too much, because if this really is Nest of Worlds everyone will read a different novel anyway.
The novel opens with Gavein Throzz landing in Davabel, though we instantly realise that this is no ordinary flight. It has taken thirty-six hours in a metal seat with the hips locked in a cage, passengers were required to wear dark glasses at all times, and it was possible to use the bathroom only at certain prescribed times. As Gavein makes his way through the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that his arrival in Davabel entails, we start to learn more about this peculiar world. For a start, there are four Lands on this world, and at the age of 35 everyone on the planet moves to the next Land, and then again at 70, and presumably, if they live long enough, at 105. They then have to make their lives anew in the next Land, nothing from their previous existence seems to carry through. Moreover, they have to adapt themselves to a very different social structure. In Davabel, for instance, there is a very strict social hierarchy determined by the colour of one’s hair. Those with black hair have the highest standing and therefore the best jobs; their deputies have red hair; next in the pecking order come those with grey hair. Fair hair is the equivalent of untouchable, they have no status, virtually no rights.
Gavein’s wife is blonde, she is also four year’s younger than him so is not due to move to Davabel at the same time. They get around this by her travelling by boat, a journey that takes four years. Which opens up another peculiarity of this world: time moves at different rates depending on altitude. This is dramatically illustrated late in the novel when a helicopter explodes; to those on board it is, of course, instantaneous, but to those watching from the ground the fireball develops over several days. Debris falls from the stricken helicopter at a glacially slow rate, until it nears the ground at which point it accelerates to a normal, lethal speed. There is an image, quite early in the book, of swirls of time spiralling around the planet, an image that reminded me irresistibly of the time vortexes in Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago stories. Indeed, there was much about this novel that made me think of Kafka rewritten by Priest, until about two-thirds of the way through when something distinctly Borgesian is added to the mix. But we’ll come to that.
There is one other thing about this world that you need to understand: in addition to their ordinary name, everyone has a Significant Name. There is only a small number of Significant Names, and they represent in some manner the way their bearer will die. Gavein’s Name, and that of his wife, Ra Mahleine, is Aeriella, which signifies that their death will be associated with the air. Though this isn’t always straightforward; as with so many legends in which a prophecy is fulfilled literally but in a way that is still unexpected, death by air turns out to have very many nuances. At the start of the novel we are told that “The law of Lavath, and, to the best of my knowledge, the law of Davabel too, guarantees privacy … limits the making public of Names” (6), but this legal nicety is soon forgotten and before too long we are being made aware of everyone’s Significant Name.
While he waits for Ra Mahleine’s arrival (although Gavein left Lavath first for a journey of 36 hours, and she left later for a journey of four years, the time distortions mean they are due to arrive in Davabel within weeks of each other), Gavein finds a room in a run down boarding house and starts work at a small bookshop. During this waiting period, it seems that the novel we are reading is about Gavein’s struggles in the Laocoonian coils of the Davabel state, and the grey and dismal character of its society. In other words, it feels as though we are belatedly in a novel satirising the character of the communist state. But when Ra Mahleine finally arrives, the story takes a darker turn.
Because of her fair hair, her journey has been four years of torment. As the lowest of the low, she has been beaten and ill treated in every way. When she is finally released into Gavein’s care she is desperately ill, in fact, we eventually realise, she is terminally ill. There is, of course, no chance that Gavein will do what the state and so many of its functionaries clearly expect: abandon Ra Mahleine to her fate and take a dark-haired Davabel wife. Instead he rages against the system, and out of that rage mad things happen. People around him start to die, people he has met only casually, people he has only seen on television. He has no involvement with their deaths, which are bizarre and often violent, but it becomes clear that he is the focus of death.
The deaths proliferate. By half way through the novel so many characters have died that we begin to wonder how enough will survive to keep the story going. Gavein becomes Dave Death (as at Ellis Island, a casual immigration official had given him a new name, Dave; there is much understated play with names all the way through the novel). The authorities persuade him to let them run tests, though it soon becomes apparent that this is a ruse to try and kill him. But you cannot kill death, and eventually Gavein is able to parlay this status into better conditions for himself and treatment for Ra Mahleine.
Meanwhile, Gavein’s assistant in the bookshop had started reading a book called Nest of Worlds. He never finished it, quite the opposite, he started it again every time he picked it up, and each time it was different. The book consumes him, he gives up everything, eating, sleeping, in order to keep on reading; though for a long time we get no sense of why the book should be so engaging. Then, having made his peace with the authorities, Gavein picks up the book and starts reading, and miraculously his wife’s symptoms seem to abate while he does so.
In the version of Nest of Worlds that Gavein reads, we encounter Gary and Daphne who uncover what seems to be a scam affecting people moving on to the next Land, but as they investigate further they discover a more far-reaching and lethal conspiracy. There is also a version of Nest of Worlds in which they read the story of Jaspers who progresses from being a labourer to a ruthless boss in a slave-like economy. The version of Nest of Worlds that Jaspers reads tells of the sisters Ozza and Horbeth who travel together through a devastated landscape. Ozza and Horbeth are reading about Linda and Jack, newly arrived in an odd lakeside community, in their copy of Nest of Worlds. Except that these are not the only stories they read: Gary may read about Jaspers, but he doesn’t appear in the version of the book that Daphne reads. We are clearly in one of Jorge Luis Borges’s infinite books, each version of it is different.
More than that, each book takes us to a world nested within the world of the reader. Each new world has more Significant Names, more Lands, fewer years before the inhabitants move on to their next Land. In notes left by a previous reader, Gavein discovers that there is a mathematical link between these characteristics, a link that allows him to calculate that his world is itself nested within another iteration of Nest of Worlds, presumably the version we are reading, but there may be more beyond this. If the calculations are correct, someone is currently reading me in their own copy of Nest of Worlds.
This is not an easy book to read, it is complex, disturbing, intentionally disorienting. But it is built around the sort of conceit that takes the breath away. And at the moment I am the only one who can read this book on my personal samizdat version, which seems all wrong. It is clearly a book crying out to be read by as many people as possible.