Gene Wolfe’s ”The fifth head of cerberus” , has three interconnected novellas through which issues of racism, memory, identity, cloning, being and self intersect . Critically acclaimed though not read as profusely Gene Wolfe’s novels , and especially ”The fifth head of Cerberus” is suffused with dense writing that compresses a rich prose with an ability to convey subtleties of thought and philosophical conundrums powerfully. In the mythology of Cerberus, Cerberus guards the entrance to hell and is a three headed dog in his mythological embodiment. And this is conflated in the first novella, itself eponymously titled ”The fifth head of Cerberus”.
The first novella begins almost proustianly though its subject matter is both memory and self. The narrator in this story undergoes a painful self discovery as he finds out that the self, which he assumed incontrovertibly his, is a clone replicate of his father and grandfather dispersed among the family members which include him, his sibling David, his father , a teacher Mr.Million and an aunt. Cloistered as this childhood is for the narrator the slavery underpinning the social order is taken for granted by him. Subjected to interludes of dimensionless unconsciousness engendered by the drugs administered by his father the narrator free associates his unconscious, disgorging its constituents while resuming wakeful conscious life threaded by moments of lost time. Vast stretches of time in the present pass him by and are enveloped in a nothingness from which re emergence into the quotidian is abrupt and bewildering. Cloning and memory form the tapestry for an interrogation of memory and identity. The narrator, alongside his brother and a young woman become part of a theatrical group that does plays and it is the exigency of getting funds for this that leads them to vandalize a safe guarded by a four armed slave, with two arms that are synthetic . Mythology and reality commingle here . The narrator’s father is visited by John .V. Marsch whose ”A story”, a fictional recreation of the life of the abos, the aboriginals refracts aspects of the first novella. Marsch is an anthropologist in Sainte Anne, trying to plumb the recesses of the uncommemorated lives of the abos who were supplanted, exterminated in large numbers and overtaken by the people inhabiting the place now.
”A story” , the second novella amalgamates real time and dream time. The story is about another doubling and reduplicating in the abos landscape with its arcane customs and wavelengths to the collective unconscious . John Sandwalker , a denizen of this world , lives in harmony with nature, extricated from his twin Eastwind in an accident though they rejoin later with Eastwind colluding in a primitive ritual to obliterate Sandwalker and his family. In his peregrination through a landscape half mythical and half real Sandwalker meets the shadow children and their spiritual ancestor, the old wise one, presumably a race who were themselves superseded by Sandwalker. The idea of a nebulous wholeness cleft and only hazily intimated by subsequent more evolved species is visible in Sandwalker who alternates between immersion in dream time and real time and their fortuitous blurring. Dreams become intimations of reconnecting from a larger source of wholeness whose messages are encoded. After being entrapped by a group led by a powerful bully Lastvoice who has conscripted Sandwalker’s lost sibling and symbiotic doppelganger Eastwind , there is a tussle between the two siblings counteracted by Sandwalker’s awareness that however expedient his annihilation of his sibling may be irresistible and irrepressible it would relinquish an irretrievable part of his humanity by acting on this base impulse. Yet this moment of violence and the willingness to inflict it creates an uncanny bond between the two siblings , much like the narrator in the first novella who seeks to expunge an aspect of himself coalesced to his father as a genetically engineered imprinting by wishing to murder the father . Through this novella ”A story”, a way of life of the Abos people , of native groups is established that is consonant with and respectful to nature and the ineffable mystery of consciousness and ultimate reality. It is a fictional narrative composed by John Marsch , the anthropologist but it is a beautiful exploration of self knowledge that encompasses the darkness within the self. The nomenclature of the abos people allegorizes their synchronicity with the natural elements and with their pasts .
The diary entries of Marsch , colloquies with an officer and accounts of anthropological research into the Abos group in Sainte Anne constitute the third novella ”V.R.T” and details his journeyings into the depths of Sainte Anne to reconstruct and memorialize the abos group. The journal entries of Marsch detail his painstaking quest to find these roots . As an inhabitant of earth but researching in Sainte Anne Marsch becomes a tool and a victim for political shenanigans between Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix where an oscillation between torture and magnanimity in solitary confinement becomes the means for his oppressors and the rival political/national faction to wrest the truth from Marsch about his actual motivations. Marsch’s research leads him into a hinterland and wilderness , both symbolic and literal , with a young putatively Abos boy as a helper and discussions with this boy’s father , who claims, whether fraudulently or authentically, his abos origins to mint money and curry favour from the new oppressors. Marsch does tunnel into a heart of darkness which is his own darkness as well . Juxtaposed with his eventful forays in his journey are accounts of jail life that are Kafkaesque in that an unformulated crime and a faultless conscience cannot obviate the rota of discipline and punish Marsch has to undergo. . Marsch’s own half successful inroads into an aboriginal past he wishes to comprehend and elucidate is left incomplete as the boy he enlisted for his aid dies .
What prevents ”The fifth head of Cerberus” from becoming a stereotypical postmodern narrative or just a disaggregated series of loosely interlinked novellas is the dense layering within each novella and the dialectical relationship each novella has with the others in this novel. If the archetypal story within the story in the second section hearkens to Plato and Jung it doesn’t do so thoughtlessly or affectively. The primal and the social, the counterfeit and an uncategorizable, possibly unfathomable real, the mythical and the indefinably individual, the anterior and the contemporaneous , dream and reality, life and death, self and other, being and becoming are ostensible dichotomies reshuffled and superimposed on each other so that they become indistinct yet retain their specificity. Nothing in the novel is formulated in a tell all fashion but there is an underlying destabilization of all prefabricated false compartments. The narrator in the first section ruminates on the indeterminacy of memory and the overlapped, concomitant uncertainty about his own self because he is as a clone, an extension of his father . The wise old mythical figure in the second novel is both inescapably himself and the composite of all the consciousness of his group of people outlawed and extirpated. Sandwalker is , in his identity, vacillating between the tug of an unprocessed past he emerged from whose visitations in dream time are glimmeringly haphazard and a desire to assert his own singularity problematized by his attempt to near extinguish his sibling with whose self he blends . Marsch is a prisoner whose identity is an irrelevance to those who imprisoned him and he is reduced to being a receptacle for the machinations of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix. Racism, slavery hover in the background as does the brutality of colonialism. If civilization , with its technocratic acumen and material appurtenances signifies evolution then it is an evolution that is simultaneously a devolution or a misplacement and loss of something whole , including what constitutes an identity, self and being, amorphous though they are. There is an array of women characters on varied spectrums. But if women characters as servants are appendages to be exploited sexually then in the second novella there is a deep friendship between Sandwalker and a young mother he meets on his journey which again recomposes the narrator in the first section enjoying a deep friendship with the young woman he does theatre with though she is reduced to the state of a helpmeet by the novella’s end
Cerberus was a three headed dog so what do the five heads in the title represent ? I read it as the concentric elongation of the multifariousness of what both staves off yet is irresistibly entangled in the infernal. The narrator in the first novella recalls a statue of Cerberus outside his home though given the framework of his family the fifth head would attest to himself after his sibling, aunt, father and tutor/grandparental clone relic Mr. Million . Or to the different strata of humanity that exists – be it Sainte Anne, Sainte Croix, the aboriginal people, the marsh dwellers and the shadow children in the second novella, ebbing and flowing between the symbolic and the unrepresentable. ”The fifth head of Cerberus ” is an elliptical, mysterious novel, overlain with layers and depths that can be prised open and reconstituted from manifold perspectives. It is a book that deals with colonialism at one level and the dehumanization and near effacement of the Abos people who are seen by their ”super civilized” counterparts in sub human or bestial terms, it is about the elusiveness of identities in flux where the erosion of wholeness makes of the individuality the characters seek both an enigma and a continuum of what surrounds them as unavoidable social reality and genetic/ancestral engravings they can neither disavow nor acknowledge for their totality ( the shapeshifting shadow children are an accompaniment to that unknowability ) , it is also about unreliable first person accounts where clarity of self is befuddled and besmirched by the incursion of phantasmagoric lapses , be it the unsought collective unconscious through dreams and myths or the luridness of reality negating the awfulness of that very reality through a supercharged inhabitation of the spectral , or ultimately the simultaneity of schizoid fragmentations within and the bleeding into the ineffaceable reality of the other, be it primitivism, the obverse of civilization or lawlessness . The mixing up and upside down complexifying is representative of the novel which is itself uncapturable, beautifully written and imbued with a plurality of readings that are inexhaustible but rewarding .