How Sofia Samatar complicates the Bildungsroman in A Stranger in Olondria

WHM uses his feeble photoshop skills to illustrate how Sofia Samatar’s A Strange in Olondria complicates the standard plot structure of the bildungsroman.

Cover of A Stranger in OlondriaSofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria overflows with storytelling, textual and oral. Jevick is always remembering a bit of text or playing audience for another character’s urge to share with him a story. The plot is simple: Jevick leaves his island home, travels to and across Olondria and returns home. And yet because it’s so full of stories and because of how those stories interact with the main narrative arc, it feels like something very different. The narrative shape of A Strange in Olondria haunts and befuddles me. I want to understand it. No. Understand is not the right word: I want to appreciate it more fully.     

A Stranger in Olondria as Bildungsroman

Most of the reviews of the novel, swept up perhaps, in all that it has to say about literacy, reading, identity, travel and storytelling (and it has a lot to say about those things), didn’t invoke the term. Out of the reviews I’ve tracked down so far only Craig L. Gidney brings it up by noting that: “The form the novel takes is the bildungsroman: a novel about the initiation of a youth into the wider world.”

I agree with him (although, of course, Samatar beautifully and harrowingly complicates those words initiation and wider). I don’t know if it’s because I experienced it that way as I read it or if it’s actually important to understanding the novel, but I want to explore the notion further.

The classic Bildungsroman has many elements, and I’m sure there’s a whole line of academic argument over which are crucial and which are not, but for me specifically—and I have in mind two examples that I’m most familiar with here, Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly and Stendahl’s The Red and the Black—a Bildungsroman often features:

  1. A semi-educated young adult main character
  2. Who is not content with his boring, often lower-middle class lot in life
  3. Breaks with his (it’s almost always his) father and/or family
  4. Travels to an exotic location or locations (either urban or rural — but in either case one that is foreign and more dangerous than that of the main character’s upbringing)
  5. Quickly develops an awareness of his naiveté
  6. Meets other young people (and, more often than not, also an older, more experienced woman) who educate him in the ways of the world
  7. Through those friends and acquaintances gets caught up in a wider political, social and/or cultural conflict
  8. Survives and escapes the political, social and/or cultural entanglements and
  9. Returns home a wiser, sobered, more complete individual.

I may be cherry picking these attributes so that they obviously fit A Stranger in Olondria. But they also fit Waverly and The Red and the Black.

Because the point of the Bildungsroman is the education of the main character and because it involves leaving from and returning to the same place, the plot (to be sure like other plot models) is a circle. Like so:

A gray circle to represent the standard plot of a bildungsroman; the bottom is labeled home, the top is labeled abroad

That’s laughably simple, right? But two things:

1. While the leaving home and traveling abroad is an element of many types of novels, in the Bildungsroman the home and abroad are more fraught, more to the point, than, say, in the quest structure. Abroad exists to complete the character’s education—not because it needs the main character to accomplish a certain task (like defeat the evil wizard or restore the monarchy or whatever—in fact, the main character in a Bildungsroman typically in the end avoids that plot). This is why a Bildungsroman is often more wandering in its plot—more of a travelogue. So it’s actually not a crisp circle. More a meandering, ovalish one.

2. That simplistic model is what was in my head as I read the novel and how the novel breaks that structure turned out to be one of the keys to how I experienced it.

The gap and the ghost

There’s a lot going on structurally in A Strange of Olondria in regards to textuality and storytelling—Jevick is always quoting texts or being told stories—that I haven’t yet been able to figure out in relation to the overall structure of the novel (see the “more reading” section below for some excellent reviews that talk more about those aspects). But going back to my simplistic plot model above, there are two ways in which Samatar breaks the model in a profound, jarring way which complicates the novel as a Bildungsroman: the gap and the ghost.

The gap occurs during the festival of the. After the death of his father, Jevick travels to Bain, the capital city of Olondria, on a trading trip. Up to this point, all the elements of bildungsroman are there: the book education, the journey to a more cosmopolitan place, the initial overwhelmingness of that place, the struggle to find friends and a place. But then something happens to Jevick during the Feast of Birds that throws the pattern of the bildungsroman off: after falling in with some of the young celebrants of the feast, Jevick takes something (not specified in the text) from a young women in what appears to be a brothel. “Cousin, this is what the gods eat” (69) she tells him. He awakens later, in pain and missing his waistcoat, his purse, and even the pearl button from this shirt collar. The city alight with the fever of a festival now echoes back to him his hangover. A gap has opened up. He has lost time. The city has disenchanted itself.

But what happens after that gap—or perhaps because because of that gap—is even more important. On the sea voyage to Olondria, Jevick meets Jissavet, a young woman with a wasting disease who is traveling with her mother in the hopes of finding a miracle cure. Jissavet has not found the miracle she was hoping for. She is now a ghost. And she steps into the gap that has opened up and haunts Jevick. This fact, once it becomes known to the Olondrians, makes Jevick interesting to them. He becomes a pawn in a fight between religious cults that is spilling over into the political sphere. Much of the subsequent plot movement of the book is similar to a bildungsroman, more people who try to influence him, more travel, more witnessing of scenes that strip away his illusions. But as all of this is happening (and all this is happening because of this) Jissavet continues to haunt Jevick. She does so until, in desperate straits, Jevick agrees to write her story in return for the ghost’s help. He gives his story (and the novel) over to her:

I sat at the desk in my jacket, dipped the pen in the ink, and steeled myself against the coming light. “I’m ready,” I said. (212)

He stops fighting the haunting and the ghost—Jissavet—is able to tell her story through his pen. And so, the circle gets disrupted. There’s no longer this miasdventurish but ultimately tidy, male protagonist-centered movement from home to abroad and back. In addition to those things, there’s a gap and a ghost and, finally, the ghost taking over the narrative. Like so:

A round orange circle with a gap in it and a light blue line curving around from the gap and then diving into the orange circle

More reading on A Strange of Olondria

Craig L. Gidney review  (Quoted above.)

Amal El-Mohtar, review for Tor.com (Has a lot to say about literacy and identity.)

Sessily Watt, review for Bookslut (Makes some great points about books and power.)

Abigail Nussbaum, review at Asking the Wrong Questions (Nussbaum does an excellent job of showing how Samatar’s world building is different from a standard fantasy novel; she also explains much better and in more detail than I have above how Jissavet’s role in the novel complicates Jevick’s bibliophilia and privilege. It’s my favorite of the group.)

Gary K. Wolfe, review for Locus (Wolfe has high praise for Samatar’s prose; I agree.)

Nic Clarke, Strange Horizons review  (Among other things situates the novel as epic fantasy.)

Keguro Macharia, “Reading Sofia Samatar: Indwelling” for The New Inquiry (Really interesting: Macharia links the main character’s dead brother to the rest of the novel and in so doing provides a reading that is unique and thought-provoking.)

Current state/future state

WHM borrows a tool from business management and twists it so that he can structure a writing project.

The sword and sorcery world that I was only going to write a couple of stories in has developed into something more vast. It now appears to be made up of four major (very broad) story themes that are each going to be made up of a series of several (perhaps many) short stories, novelettes/novellas, and possibly even prose poems, short shorts and novels.

I know the broad strokes, but I don’t want to have to plot out every single arc/plot line for the whole entire thing. However, I do need to know where a particular story might fit in. And I’d like to start coming up with ideas that will slot in to each of these four themes/periods of development for the main characters.

Yesterday evening I looked at several different ways to structure novels and stories: the snowflake method, Dan Harmon’s 8-point circle (his own version of the hero’s journey); Lou Anders four stages (Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, Martyr); Dan Wells’ 7 Point Story Structure. All good stuff. But not quite what I needed. Each are workable for individual works. Or even say one longer work (a trilogy, for example, that has one plot that goes across all three books and then a smaller version of it for each individual title). This project is intended to be looser than that. And be expandable if I so desire.

So as I was looking at my four broad story themes and then slotting which stories fit under each one, and for some reason I thought of this tool we use at work sometimes: current state/future state. And I realized that for each theme I could define a beginning state, a middle state and an end state. I think others do something similar with character arcs so I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground here. All I’m saying is that thinking about it in this way helped me with this particular project.

Here’s an example (not one from a project I’m working on):

Beginning State:  the sensei and his best student have a straightforward master/apprentice relationship
Middle State: the relationship becomes complicated (physically, emotionally and politically)
Ending State:  the apprentice has surpassed his sensei, but misses the straightforward relationship he once had

I am finding it useful to express it in this format with my current project because it helps me think about what stories I need to write and which ones actually belong and where I have gaps. Obviously the first and last stories under a particular theme need to establish the beginning and ending states. But other stories will be guided by where in the middle the characters are (so it’s not just defined chronologically but also by where in the overall psychodrama of the relationship the two characters are). I’m hoping that in this way I’ll end up with four collections (or at least a first one, then we’ll see if I still have the interest and energy for the other three) that are episodic in terms of plot, but still contain strong character arcs.