Max Frei

Translated by Polly Gannon

The Labyrinths of Echo, Book One

Gollancz (2009)

Reviewed by David Buchbinder, June 2010

It is always interesting to read the fantasy or speculative fiction of a culture other than one’s own.  Even allowing for the many problems inherent in the act of translation—for it constantly involves not merely substituting one word in one language for an equivalent in the other language, but also looking to match the cultural weight and implication of each word, each phrase, each clause, each sentence in the one language with its equivalent (though this will almost always be only approximate) in the other tongue—such works of fiction nearly always cause me, at least, as a reader to feel as though I have swerved and skidded so as to fetch up looking askew at the very genre (or, if you prefer, subgenre) concerned.  Often one tries to find equivalents to these narratives in one’s own language and culture; this is not, however, always a successful quest.

Written originally in Russian, The Stranger is the first in a decalogy (or series of 10 books) titled The Labyrinths of Echo which attracted an enthusiastic following; this volume was published originally in 1997 but not translated into English and published until nearly a decade later.  Max Frei, its ostensible author, is also the central character in this strange tale about a 30-year-old man who is pulled from this world and its realities into what he had thought was a dream world in which he had found himself on a number of occasions while asleep, but which turns out to be real enough.  (In fact, “Max Frei” is a pseudonym for Svetlana Martynchuk.)

In the city of Echo, where magic is practised, Max becomes the protégé of Sir Juffin Hully, the jovial director of the Secret Police.  He also makes the acquaintance of various other members of Sir Juffin’s staff, including a deadly agent of Sir Juffin’s, the Lady Melamori, with whom Max falls in love and thereby enters into an intricate, complex relationship that involves learning about local laws and customs concerning love, desire and sex.

In the world which he has left, Max was a loser; in this new world and in the city of Echo, Max becomes Sir Max and learns that he has special powers—indeed, powers that others like Sir Juffin are unable to determine and name.  Much of the narrative in this novel is given over to Max’s discovery of those powers and his learning to control and deploy them.

The Stranger is a weirdly compelling read.  In some ways, it reminds me of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, and in particular the first two novels of that series, Titus Groan (1946) and Gormenghast (1950).  Both of these share with The Stranger the characteristic of what we might call an unbounded fictional world.  That is, the laws governing what can happen in the world of the narrative are loose and undefined.  Consequently, when the narrative requires certain conditions or circumstances, the fictional world is simply adjusted to accommodate these.  This leads, in both the Gormenghast books and this one, to a certain baroque imaginativeness.  In Peake’s novels, Gormenghast Castle is rather like Dr. Who’s Tardis: as vast as this ancient pile is, its interior appears to afford an infinity of even vaster spaces as well as an apparently endless array of rooms and chambers—at one point, for example, we are told that there is a horse grazing in a meadow located on the roof of part of the castle.  Likewise, in The Stranger, Max, a smoker in a world without cigarettes, learns how to reach into his home world or dimension, and simply appropriate the wherewithal with which to smoke: sometimes it is a whole pack, but sometimes it is only a few cigarettes—and he never knows from which unsuspecting and anonymous stranger he filches his smokes.

The Stranger lacks the formal quest motif that often characterises works of fantasy fiction.  Indeed, there is an improvisatory feel to the narrative, almost as though the author were thinking, “Where shall we go now with Max and the strange motley crew that have become his companions?  I know—let’s put him in such-and-such a situation, with these characteristics and constraints, and see what happens!”

In many ways, this novel is a fantasy of a kind different from the familiar, standard work of fantasy fiction: in part, it is the fantasy, suggested by Freud, of a child who is convinced that his parents are not really his or her parents, and that the real mother and father will show up one day, to reveal that the child is actually high-born, wealthy and powerful.  It is also a social fantasy: given the history of the former Soviet Union and the more recent history of Russia, the idea of a jovial, friendly and helpful head of the Secret Police must seem, to Russian readers, not only an anomaly but an impossibility.

While at times the narrative flags and becomes a little flaccid, for the most part the reader is kept diverted by the unexpected, often endowed with a comic overlay, as for example when Max is sent with his fellow agent Sir Lonli-Lokli on a mission that requires him to masquerade as a woman.  This, in turn, requires him to learn the behaviour, dress and gestures appropriate for a married woman of a certain class and status.  Whether such diversion is sustained across the other nine volumes of this series remains to be seen.  I hope it is, and I shall look forward to reading the translation of the rest, assuming that Gollancz intends to publish them.