The Silent City, Élisabeth Vonarburg

The Silent City, Élisabeth Vonarburg (1981)
Review by Nic Clarke

The City is alive, of course! […] Elisa’s absent heart swells with love in her absent body. The City, infinitely wise, infinitely powerful, the City with its ever-welcoming womb, the City that has survived all its humans, all its masters.

It’s been quite some time since I read Elisabeth Vonarburg’s The Silent City (translated by Jane Brierley from the 1981 French original). Ten months, in fact, give or take. But I can’t quite bring myself to set it aside without saying something about it here. At just over 250 pages, it’s a slim novel – by the standards of today’s science fiction, that is – but it has atmosphere and interesting themes to spare.

Inevitably, at such a remove, what I have to offer is more of a series of impressions than a full review. The overriding image I’ve retained from the book is of the titular City itself: a vast, gleaming sanctuary for knowledge and the knowledgeable, last bastion of civilisation in a post-apocalyptic landscape to offer “clear, clean life that knows neither rust nor rot”. As is the way of such things, it is also a sterile, echoing place, whose few remaining inhabitants have, for several hundred years, barricaded themselves away from the Outside, withering into madness even as they force their bodies to stay forever young through a battery of rejuvenation treatments. With nothing left to live for except to have sex and get on each other’s nerves, they still grasp – to no avail – after immortality, “the malevolent dream of the Cities”.

Or else they conduct strange experiments upon the one genuinely young person left among them: curious, trusting Elisa, the last child born in the City:

It was always a surprise, although the day began with the same strange game. Papa would put a sort of wire hat on Elisa and then cut into the end of her finger. It hurt, but not for long. Anyway, the idea of the game was to stop it hurting and make it get better as quickly as possible. All you had to do was stop the blood and close the cut. He explained it to her, and said she could do it if she wanted to. And she did it. As time went on the cuts became deeper, right to the bone.

There’s a twisted fairy tale quality to the cocoon that is Elisa’s early life. When Paul (her ‘Papa’) isn’t slicing her skin in the name of science – for reasons that remain opaque to her for many years – he throws a maskerade party to celebrate the progress of his research into her uncanny self-healing ability (that is, to show off to his fellow urbanites, who are consumed with poorly-hidden jealousy at this next stage of immortality). An unwelcome guest promptly turns up to the party and declares,

“I see you forgot to invite me […] I’ve a gift for the little princess, nevertheless. When she turns twenty, she’ll prick her finger and live forever.”

Another, friendlier guest responds by mitigating the curse into a mere 200+ years. Nor does the creepiness of Paul’s exploitation of Elisa end with the experiments: as Elisa grows from young innocence to, well, slightly older innocence, the pair become lovers. Elisa initiates this for the time-honoured reason of wanting to feel alive to overcome a brush with mortality – it is framed as a desperate gesture, which she makes to fend off the new realisation that Paul, her whole universe, is ageing and will one day die, leaving her alone. But the issue here, as throughout the book with a variety of characters, is how much autonomy Elisa can possibly have, given the circumstances of her life and upbringing: is she even able to make an informed choice, when everything she is has been so shaped to Paul’s ends?

When, inevitably, Elisa begins to discover the extent of Paul’s manipulations – that she was not born with her self-healing abilities by chance, but genetically-engineered to be so – she tries to rationalise the lies and betrayal, telling herself that “when they made love, she could feel that he truly loved her. She couldn’t have been wrong about that!” But she cannot escape the knowledge that her sole and abiding value to Paul lies in what she represents to him, not who she is:

He had wanted her, after all.

Why? Because she’s the subject of an on-going experiment.

It is the seflish side of parenting writ large and literal: Elisa is her father’s immortality; she exists because he wants a legacy, some testament of his life in the world for when he has gone. She (ew) keeps him young. Predictable, Paul’s response when he realises what she has learned is not remorse but (after initial alarm) complacency. He cannot conceive of her as anything but a child, as his property:

they’ll talk about it, she’ll understand. He’ll make her understand. She’s his, he made her, she will understand. No, he won’t punish her. She has a right to know it all.

The rest of the book follows Elisa as she flees the City (and Paul) for Outside, and the choices she makes that lead her ultimately to repeating the abusive patterns of her own childhood on a larger scale. After the unobtrusively but totally controlled environment of the City, Outside is abruptly, shockingly tactile for Elisa (“The air is hot and stifling, the atmosphere of fear palpable”), and a large part of her story from here on is concerned with an exploration of physicality and in particular of Elisa’s bodily autonomy. Elisa’s ability to rejuvenate herself extend, she learns, into complete physical transformation: she can utterly alter her appearance, including her biological sex.

On one level, after so long at Paul’s mercy, in which her Papa’s control over her was regularly (if temporarily) inscribed on her skin, this explosion of possibility is liberating for Elisa. But Outside, it is less freeing than it might be, because the regressive post-apocalyptic culture that has developed in the Outside is – with regional variations – deeply and viscerally hostile to women, who are blamed for the genetic mutations that have blighted the human population. Men have been particularly badly hit, such that they are now scarce; women, numerous and hated, are little better than slaves. Paul, when he realises this new twist in Elisa’s abilities, delightedly crows that,

“The problem has vanished, Elisa. Your very existence has annihilated it. Woman, man – there’s no problem now. People will become what they want.”

But he misses what Elisa and – later – her offspring know in their bones: in this world, who would choose to be a woman?

She would have liked to let them choose the sex they preferred for going Outside, but they’d had to admit there wasn’t really any choice. They’d agreed that they didn’t genuinely want to be girls on the Outside. “We couldn’t do anything except have babies until we are worn out. […] If we want to change something Outside we have to be men.”

In raising her rejuvenating brood, Elisa falls prey to all the same paternalistic assumptions and abuses that Paul did. She loses her sense of the children as individuals, seeking to use them for her own ends (to transform society Outside) and drip-feed information to them so that she might control their lives and purposes for as long as possible. Again, the locus of the book’s thematic interest, and of the characters’ conflict, is their physicality; Elisa seeks to shape the children’s identities by regulating their bodies, enforcing scheduled sex transmutations despite the growing wishes of some individuals to remain in the same body (and the same gender) beyond the time limit. The disturbing implications of Elisa’s obsession find expression in, for example, her eldest child Abram’s decision, once firmly entrenched in his masculinity, to change his appearance so that he looks like … Paul.

As an examination of sex, gender and the body, then, it’s rich and fascinating – even if, being nearly thirty years old, it’s rather briefer and a little ‘thinner’ than an sf book with a comparable amount of plot would be today. Some of the battle of the sexes stuff Outside can be clunky, but when the novel concentrates on Elisa’s Freudian project, on the meeting of her physicality and her interiority, it has plenty of food for thought, and some primal imagery besides:

One hand had tirelessly unravelled what the other had tirelessly woven.

For twenty years, with each child, I have unceasingly given birth to myself, opened the womb, cut the cord, torn myself from the City. It was an act carried out in a dream, the sort of dream that is so difficult to escape, the dream that imitates reality.

The review originally appeared on Eve’s Alexandria.

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