Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Conflicted Feelings: Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente – Review

Palimpsest is a story about a sexually transmitted city.
It’s strange and uncomfortable; it has an idea and goes for it without ever trying to hide that, without compromises, which is something I always appreciate. It could be seen as a response to the Greek myth that says people are only half of a whole, or the soulmate trope in general: it asks why does it have to be two? As I’m someone who loves stories about cities and human sexuality but not about soulmates, I really liked what this book did.
However, I’m still really conflicted about it, because it got as many things wrong as it got right.

Some have said that this book was “ahead of its time”, and in some ways, it is. How many books with an all-queer, polyamorous cast and a happy ending are there? Not many, and it’s 2020. This was published in 2009, and I think the author received homophobic and biphobic harassment when it got more visibility due to an award nomination.
In other ways, Palimpsest is very much a book published in 2009, and I don’t mean that because of certain tropes, but because of how much of an unintentional-yet-proud display of American ignorance and self-centeredness it is.

Valente having misrepresented other cultures is not news in the slightest, but in Palimpsest you get to witness how she writes about the American character in comparison to the other three, non-American PoVs, and the difference is stark. While the American character gets to be a character, the others are written as if their culture were a personality trait.

The Italian character feels like a cobbled-up caricature of things taken from various parts of Italian history, and of course he’s passionate and sexist, of course he doesn’t know English, and going from how this book writes the parts in Italian, he can’t speak Italian either.
The Russian character’s whole personality is “sad”; the Japanese girl has blue hair (of course) and the way she was written gave me a weird feeling in a bad way; however I’m neither Russian nor Japanese and I can’t play the game of “spot the gross stereotype” as well as I could with Ludovico. And Ludovico’s PoV was a minefield of ignorance. I can forgive it a little more since conversations around representation and US-centrism weren’t as easily accessible and easily found then as they are today (in which there’d really be no excuse for writing a book like this and yet it keeps happening), but still.

And can we talk about the weird/unintentionally comedic effect of naming an Italian character “Nerezza”? It’s an attempt at a translation of “blackness”¹ (Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, is that you?) but sounds like an insult due to the assonance with other words with a -zz sound: “schifezza”, grossness, “ribrezzo”, instinctive disgust, and since she’s from Rome, “monnezza”, garbage in Romanesco. Nerezza monnezza, the poor woman would have been bullied so much.
(If you’re going to make up names in a language you don’t know, please ask a native speaker to make sure they don’t rhyme with several insults².)

But it gets worse! In the scene in which the American woman, November, first talks on the phone with Ludovico, she realizes that he only knows very basic English, and he is embarrassed and apologizes profusely. When they meet, in Italy, one of the first things November mentions is his “gnarled and barbed” accent while speaking in English (of course).
It never occurs to her to learn one word in Italian! It never occurs to her to apologize, or to be embarrassed for her ignorance; it certainly never occurs to the author either, and given what she has written, she should be. “Oh Christo“, you say? I’m cringing into the next century.

And I’m annoyed because I know what this could have been had the author not used cultures just for the exotic flavor, had she actually done her research, had she actually asked people from said cultures to read what she wrote. The only fact that I did finish this book should tell you how good it was otherwise.

This is a story about four people who first find each other in the dream city of Palimpsest, and then have to find each other again outside of it to stay in it: here, they can be who they really are in a way they never could in the real world. It’s a story as full of yearning as it is of uncomfortable sex scenes, and it’s at its heart about the changing norms, the hidden signals and the gatekeeping of marginalized communities (the Nerezza plot point: it will never be easy for me, so why it should be for you? So much pain from that).

And Palimpsest is wonderful to read about! A magical, terrifying city that feels so freeing and yet is all but an utopia, with its own issues and disparities and people who try to cling to the past when that’s not possible, not when cities are always rewriting themselves.
I also love the writing. One could say it’s too much, but I don’t mind, I like books written in an unconventional way, in which the writing almost feels like a character in itself, in which you won’t forget it easily.

This is not a nice story; it’s messy, it focuses on all kinds of outcasts and certainly has teeth, in a way that makes me think it wouldn’t fit in even if it was published today after a good round of culture-focused editing – because today’s major issue in the queer book community isn’t so much the queerphobia, but the idea that portraying something uncomfortable must be an endorsement of it, and this book has so much of that kind of content. It has at least two plot points revolving around fraternal incest; it would need its own magical Palimpsest publishing industry to exist as it is without facing significant backlash.

My rating: ★★★½

Footnotes, for nuance
¹

When I first wrote this review, I said that this word doesn’t exist. According to the Treccani, it does, as does “giallezza” (yellowness) and “rossezza” (redness), but interestingly not “bluezza” (blueness), or “verdezza” (greenness). I’m wondering which criteria they used to include words because I’ve never seen any them used if not in awkward translation from English quotes. We don’t really do that, for example a redness of the skin is an “arrossamento”, not a “rossezza”. I guess it does exist, but it’s rare and due to the sound it also looks awkward and kind of ridiculous. If in a non-name context one needed to translate “[color]ness”, I’d always go with “l’essere [colore]” (in literal English: “the being [color]”.) In a name context, just don’t.

²

This is even more frustrating considering that we do have names that mean “black” or “dark”. Several of them! I personally would have suggested Maura because it’s somewhat uncommon (so it has the ~special~ connotation the author is going for) and has a cold ring to it (it’s not pronounced like Laura; well, Italian!Laura isn’t pronounced the way English speakers say it either, so I guess it is and you’ll have to make peace with them saying it wrong, but the actual thing is closer to “Mawra” with the “aw” of “away”). For nuance and transparency, I also want to point out that Nerezza rhymes with “bellezza” as well, which means “beauty”, but I promise that “Nerezza bellezza” would be even more ammunition for bullies.

8 thoughts on “Conflicted Feelings: Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente – Review

  1. “of course he doesn’t know English, and going from how this book writes the parts in Italian, he can’t speak Italian either” – savage. I love it.

    Great review, Acqua, and I’m sorry this book could have been so much better if Valente had bothered to do her research! I’m very lucky, being a Brit (and a white Brit, at that), that I don’t need to look very far to see someone like me in a book, so I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to see an author butchering languages and cultures that they clearly haven’t bothered learning about. I cringe when American authors don’t use British slang correctly, never mind a whole language.

    I think you make a really good point as well about characters not bothering to learn new languages when they visit a new country, and I think it’s something we need to see more of. Learning new languages from a young age is something we still need to improve on here in the UK, but if we saw more people doing that in the fiction we read I genuinely think it could contribute towards normalising that behaviour.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d mostly be fine with not seeing Italians in books (in a way I wouldn’t be with the aspects of me that are marginalized), but… not with this. It is even more frustrating because it’s clear that this book didn’t mean to, but it still attached a different, lower value to my culture and language. [If authors are going to get paid for this they could at least make an effort, but of course not!]

      And I hope that changes about the UK! I only really started trying to become fluent in English at 15, but I don’t know if that would have been possible/worth the effort had I not known the basics since elementary school. It’s kind of depriving people of opportunities later on.

      Like

    1. It is a really intriguing book, but like a lot of older novels, it’s full of very questionable stuff, and it makes sense to want to spend one’s time reading something that isn’t. (…maybe I should have done that.)
      Thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

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