By Nike Sulway
Cover artwork by Timothy Parker Russell
Tartarus Press, 2013
When you read a great (or a good or even a middling) work of history, there’s usually a bevy of jarring hits, a fair few moments when you realise that everything might have been so very different, nothing was ever writ in stone.
Take the decision of the early Christian church to appropriate Hebrew scripture and to present the coming of Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. It did not have to happen like that, they might well have gone with Marcion rather than St. Paul. Why not make a complete break with the past? After all, the world was about to come to an end.
These thoughts are all by way of leading up to this point: fiction can achieve a similar feat, in particular science-fiction and the much-maligned genre of fantasy. For in creating a strange world, such fictions show us how strange and weird, how downright implausible and unexpected, our own world is. We can easily forget about this, as we struggle to survive in it.
At the centre of this novel is Rupetta, a mechanical doll that comes to consciousness in seventeenth century France. She needs a companion to periodically wind her clockwork heart – it is an intimate, curiously symbiotic relation – but to all intents and purposes she is alive. In time a religion, a culture and a set of customs, a whole way of understanding is built up around Rupetta, predicated on the notion that death – Mother Nature’s ghoulish flaw – can be overcome by mechanical means. Initiates undergo a process called the Transformation, which involves getting fitted out with a new ticker, an improved clockwork heart. There is a promise of immortality, but it doesn’t always take.
The story switches back and forth in time, related by Rupetta herself and Henri Bellmer (her surname an adroit allusion to Hans, I’d surmise), a young woman who joins a community of monkish scholars (sinister Cistercians, I think of them as) at a time when Rupetta’s religion, the movement built up around her, has been well established. She forms an attachment to Jenon, a charismatic lecturer who becomes in time her research supervisor. I pictured him as being like a certain elderly, distinguished Wittgenstein scholar whom I met briefly in Kirchberg. A kindly fellow, he would customarily ask young PhD. Students: ‘What is your thesis?’ The image stuck, even when Jenon turned out to be a rum ‘un.
Towards the end, Rupetta and Henri’s narratives mesh together and taken as a whole the novel ticks a lot of boxes: it is at once a (same-sex) love story, an alternative history, an ethnography, a detective story. Myths have been fabricated and must be unraveled. Steampunk and fantastical elements are in evidence (chronometers, automata, dirigibles, et al.) but don’t intrude unduly. And there are wondrous, moving passages full of lyricism, elegy, wonder and suggestive speculation. Cherish them as you puzzle out Rupetta’s world and its underlying culture and history. This is a strangely enchanting, wholly convincing novel.
As a postscript and an aside: those familiar with Andy Clarke’s Natural-Born Cyborgs will need little convincing that our world, in particular in its concern with transhumanist and post-human futures, is not so very different from Rupetta’s.
The publisher’s description of Rupetta can be read here.