Selected Stories, due out soon from Swan River Press, brings together a number of stories by Mark Valentine that share related themes and a very particular style of approach reminiscent of the work of several writers working in the early 20th Century. While most stories don’t specify a year in which they take place, references to the Great War and real and imagined personages and events place them firmly in the first two decades of the last century.
‘A Certain Power’ presents an alternative history that sees Finland lending support to the Tsarists in their retaking of St. Petersburg during the Russian Civil War. In ‘The Unrest at Aachen’, a complex tug-of-war for the sympathies of the German people is enacted in the lead-up to the outbreak of the First World War. A doctor of linguistics struggles to popularise a newly invented international language in the aftermath of the Great War in ‘The Mascarons of the Late Empire’.
A theme of the passing of the old world and the dawning of the modern runs through all of the stories, which makes their placement in time all the more appropriate, as the Great War destroyed, for once and for all, old world thinking and saw the emergence of new ideologies based on the individual and self-determination. In ‘The Dawn at Tzern’, Postmaster Conrad, who manages a tiny post office in a village situated in a rural outpost of the empire, finds himself reluctant to destroy his books of stamps when the old Emperor dies and new stamps, featuring the image of a new, younger and inexperienced Emperor, are issued. In ‘The Ka of Astarakhan’, a sainted madman, or ex-soldier, or high priest, we’re never quite sure who or what the narrator is, is brought, fever-wracked, by a travelling companion to a derelict bath-house in a village en route to Astrakhan to rest, recuperate, or possibly die. There is no thought of the new world coming to life all around him; only a dream of the way things were and a determination to resuscitate that golden era.
Central to this old world is a certain understanding of an essential unknowability of the cosmos, or at least a belief in forces operating beyond our senses that can only ever be glimpsed in a rare conjoining of circumstances. In ‘The Walled Garden on the Bosphorus’, a young man visits the puzzlingly deserted apartment of a French ex-pat he has become acquainted with while living in Constantinople. The French ex-pat, Felix Vrai, has been investigating ancient religions that purport to shed light on the real nature of the universe and the young man suspects there may be some connection between that fascination and Vrai’s disappearance. The protagonist of ‘The Amber Cigarette’ is convinced that discovering a certain way of looking at a cigarette case he has recently purchased will open doors to a new way of perceiving the world. ‘The Original Light’ explores similar territory when a young boy becomes addicted to an idea put forward by his Uncle Vasta that we see only a dim reflection of the real universe.
In all of these stories, and more, there is a remarkable sense of place as well as time. There are hints of Kafka here and there and I’m reminded of the work of Ivo Andric, the Nobel Prize winning author of The Bridge on the Drina and The Damned Yard and Other Stories. But Valentine brings his own unique voice to the stories in this collection in a synthesis of influences that creates something genuinely new and different. Highly recommended.