Of Love Lost

 Review of the short story "The Byzantine Apple" by Jarkko Pylväs, in Issue 9 of The Cross and the Cosmos.

The Cross and the Cosmos has been very open to highly unusual or experimental story forms, proving itself faithful to speculative fiction.  “The Byzantine Apple” by Jarkko Pylväs is the perfect story for those speculative fiction fans who say they like “anything weird.”  However, the strangeness of “The Byzantine Apple” is not due to absurd or bizarre occurrences.  It is not paranormal.  Instead, it incorporates the material of legend and folklore.

The story is written at a literary level far above my ability to comprehend.  There are many story elements that may be symbolic, but may also be allusions to literature that I haven’t heard of, much less read.  Oberon is prominent, and my crash Wikipedia research suggests that the stories regarding Oberon may have been used directly as the basis of the plot, but I don’t know.

Both the style and structure are strange, not at all like standard prose narrative.  The writing sounds like it should be oral; there is repetition and colloquial explanation, with a vague setting loosely tied to history.  The effect is very much that of an ancient folktale, but archaic language is not used.  The longer second chapter interrupts the narrative, such as it is, with several poems.  These poems are written evocatively in a contemporary style that refrains from much punctuation or capitalization.  In fact, one could argue that the whole story is more of a poem, based on the non-standard narrative style and structured repetition of the prose parts.  The contemporary style of the explicit poetry does clash with the ancient folklore setting, but perhaps it also lends a sense of timelessness.

The narrative is uneven and does not seem to follow a specific protagonist.  There are four identifiably separate sections in the story; one of them appears to be a prologue, and the final one definitely functions as an epilogue.  This result in two central chapters that are mostly exclusive from each other except for the theme.  These two chapters have different main characters, each one of the two characters introduced together in the prologue.  However, the climax of the whole story – if the story is even unified enough to have a real climax – appears in the second major chapter, and that is where the theme is most clear.

This theme seems to be explicitly stated.  The second character says that “eternal desire” – love not yet realized – when finally realized, would be “more real than anything else, but now it’s only fantasy compared to the reality.” The two main characters originated in a very lowly state, both literally and metaphorically.  By the end of the prologue, they have only acted selfishly.  But in their separate stories, Oberon leads them to rise above their selfishness and to give back to the world, even as they continue to pursue their heart’s desire, the Byzantine Apple.  Neither of them find it.  Along the way, both learn how to live with their lack, channeling their longing into good deeds while waiting restlessly but patiently for something that they will never be able to find on their own.

Thus, the story touches the most universal chord in all fantasy, perhaps in all literature.  The unending longing for love, or for wonder that doesn’t fade and disappoint, is central to our human experience.  Most standard literature just romanticizes the longing without offering any explanation of it or any hope for it to fulfilled in some higher way.  What I love about fantasy is that the epic scope gives the longing substance.

“The Byzantine Apple” approaches this grand theme with amazing subtly and skill.  The author seems to be aware of all the ways that this universal longing is expressed – in art, in practical deeds of kindness, in sexuality, and in the Bible.  (There is so much subtle Biblical allusion and imagery that another possible interpretation of the story could involve a metaphor of experiencing God through the Bible.  If that is true, which is unlikely, then this would be the most daring Bible allegory I have ever encountered.)  This story is hard to appreciate, and I’m not entirely sure that I was able to get beyond the strangeness.  However, there is a wealth of meaning and sacred beauty here that makes reading this story well worth the effort.

Comments

  1. The multilayered meanings of "The Byzantine Apple" was part of why the Cross and the Cosmos published it. Pylväs reached into old legends & tales, then skillfully blended them with scriptural precepts without ever becoming obtrusive.

    But one of the things that I found especially enchanting was the storytelling itself, the language as well as the content. It hearkens to Old World traditions which, although strange to modern American eyes, contains a richness many modern stories no longer have. It's truly a beautiful story in multiple ways.

    And on behalf of The Cross and Cosmos, thank you for your thoughtful review.

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