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The Land Across

>A man child takes an out-of-the-way vacation in Gene Wolfe's Land Across. Grafton considers himself a travel writer, but he doesn't write much. After finishing a book about Viennese night life, he heads eastward into a totalitarian state which he calls "the land across the mountains." He knows little about this mysterious country except for rumors and advice from other travelers. The reader never learns either Grafton's last name or the true name of "the land across."

Then again, this is a Gene Wolfe novel. Perhaps both their names lie on the Hungarian plain under a hassock; let the hunt begin.

TLA lacks the abstruse obscurity of some of his other works, but mystery still lurks on every page, even in straightforward speech. Grafton records only snippets of the country's tongue, mostly Greek.

Early in his story, our itinerant protagonist finds that his advisers have misled him. Police arrest him. Ostensibly, Wolfe views Americans as targets for the unscrupulous abroad, as Grafton changes hands, falling into the custody of several different groups, each with their own agenda.

To make any sense of his story, Grafton and the reader must navigate this labyrinth of Balkan conspiracy. Wolfe complicates matters. Grafton encounters magical elements such as voodoo, supernatural creatures, and a "hand of glory."

In an interview, Wolfe described the land across as "wholly fictional," but he provides enough geographical and historical details to evince the general locus.

Grafton bears a passing resemblance to writer Patrick Fermor, who wrote Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and Beyond the Iron Gate. This trilogy roughly corresponds to Grafton's two books and planned third. They cover the same general regions. The content of BWW bears little resemblance to TLA. There is just a passing similarity between two events on trains:

I woke up during the night, and I will never forget it. We had stopped where they had fields of some kind of grain that grew a lot taller than a man. Silent men walked up and down the train, men I could just barely make out by starlight. They looked small, but I think they were really big men. They carried what I figured were dark lanterns, boxy black gadgets that shed floods of light you did not expect when they were opened. (Wolfe)

I thought I had been the only passenger, but a party of bearded and spectacled rabbis in long black overcoats and wide hats had climbed out of the end-carriage; they were attended by students with elf-locks corkscrewing down their wax-pale cheeks and the dark-clad gathering on the platform looked as strange under the moon as a confabulation of rooks.  (Fermor)

This is hardly a scandalous similarity, but there is little else to compare. Both Grafton and Fermor have affairs with blond married women they meet in their travels, though Grafton shares more details, and Fermor ostensibly felt more deeply about the episode. In all, Fermor gives the impression of a nigh platonic love affair, though he may be misleading the reader, which may echo Grafton as well. Though similar ages during their journeys, Grafton acts in this and other episodes like a much less mature and learned individual.

Wolfe and Fermor also share obsessions with local languages and etymologies. Grafton speaks little of the particulars, but they remain common Wolfean techniques and exist in TLA in various forms, e.g. the use of ancient Greek (Phrygian?) in the words oyanaktan (leader) and profasis (excuse).

Deciphering the Transmonian words is somewhat trying as Wolfe (deliberately?) misspells them. Paraustays could mean "fire moth" or a ritual of mourning. Lake Perilimna is basically Greek for "around lake" but could also be a reference to lake Pantelimon (all-compassionate) in Bucharest.

Besides being the writer of the most famous travel books about the area, Fermor led an impressive life. He made influential friends: artists, writers, royalty. A Romanian princess numbered among his lovers. Most interesting of all, Fermor served as an intelligence operative in the Second World War and aided the Cretan resistance against Nazi Germany. His life inspired Ian Fleming, who made use of details from Fermor's writing in his own work.

But what is the land across? Where is it? The obvious answer is Transylvania, the land across the woods. Grafton identifies the country as the land across the mountains, however. Transylvania is also across the Carpathian mountains, but Transylvania is no longer a country at any rate. For now, let us refer to the fictional nation as Transmonia.

Wolfe contends the nation to be fictional but its geography more or less conforms to modern day Romania, of which the Transylvanian region has been a part for the greater part of a century. There are also two important geographical features of Transmonia that correspond to Romania.

Grafton sees a river called Taxus on an old map. This is Latin for "yew" which in Romanian is Tisza, the name of a river in northern Romania. The second geographical feature is the Frozen Forest in the capital, a spooky place reminiscent of Bucharest's own Baneasa Forest, the eponym of Mircea Eliade's famous Romanian novel The Forbidden Forest.

Eliade was a philosopher and mystic, and obsesses throughout his novel with time in its metaphysical sense. It is based somewhat loosely on Eliade's own life. Wolfe's novel resembles Eliade's chiefly in one respect: Stefan, the protagonist of TFF and Eliade's cipher, is at one point imprisoned for being thought a member of a fascist organization, the Iron Guard, aka the Legion of the Archangel Michael, an episode from Eliade's own life. This of course recalls Grafton's imprisonment for his connection to the Legion of Light.

Despite the lack of Romanian language in TLA, it is clear that Transmonia and Romania share too many attributes to be unrelated. This is without mentioning the references to Vlad Tepes.

Grafton lets slip an aside about Greek geographer Strabo who wrote about the Transmonian region. Strabo's work does little to illuminate Grafton's story, but he does mention a pagan deity, Zalmoxis. This is interesting for several reasons. Wolfe makes frequent reference to pagan deities and rituals in his work, especially for comparison or identification with Christianity. More fascinating is that the god's mystery cult involved a ritual eerily resembling the impalement dreams Grafton mentions, dreams that would otherwise appear to be mere references to Vlad Tepes. Furthermore, Mircea Eliade himself wrote extensively on Zalmoxis, including a book of the same name.

Another interesting mystery is that of the JAKA. Ostensibly an acronym, Grafton never spells out its meaning. It would make little sense as Greek or even Romanian. There was, however, a Russian organization known as the Cheka, and JAKA could stand, in Russian, for "State Anti-Terrorism and Counter-Intelligence Agency."

One criticism of TLA is its prose style. Grafton writes in a peculiar manner with archaisms. This is reminiscent of how computer translation programs (mentioned in the novel) sometimes have outdated dictionaries. It's possible that Grafton's story is computer translated from another language, and this would explain why the country is not given a proper name but simply called "the land across the mountains."

An interesting possibility is that Grafton himself speaks English as a second language, having learned it from dictionaries with outdated terms. He could be a Transmonian operative pretending to be or conditioned to believe he is an American, perhaps a copy of the "real" Grafton. This would explain many other things, such as his confusion over his "dead" father. He never mentions his mother or other family/friends. The one memory of his father is a rather implausible boat trip.

Another fruitful line of investigation lies in comparing TLA to Wolfe's other work structurally. There isn't a Wolfe formula exactly, but certain events and archetypes repeat with frequency. Compare Grafton's final confrontation with the archbishop to Severian's with Baldanders. Compare both to myths such as St. George and the Romanian Făt-Frumos. Grafton slays a dragon and rescues a "princess."

These disparate strands of investigation might weave a more complete picture of TLA if followed to their conclusions. Other snippets of interest include the girl Yelena that Grafton can't save. That's another word for Ileana, the name of the princess that Fat Frumos saves from the dragon/ogre Zmeu. We never learn the name of the girl Grafton ends up with at the end of TLA, but Grafton saves her from an "ogre" as well.

Many of the mysteries in the book remain obfuscated, such as the identity of Magos X (Papa Zenon?) and the identities of the ghosts/faeries.  What are those conveyor belts and that tall grain at the beginning of the book? Are the leader and his guard werewolves?  Whatever happened to the Legion of Light anyway? Is Rosalee a golem? And so on . . . .