For Robinson, stories are about optimism and the belief that life will always go on — Shaman is no different. It is an intelligent, and at times mesmerising novel. The perfect book for archaeology buffs.
The earliest human societies remain a mystery to us. Archaeology reveals that our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, yes, but what were their day-to-day lives like? How did they love and fight? How did they express themselves in art? How did they die and how did they grieve?
Offering fictional answers to these questions, Kim Stanley Robinson’s impressive novel unfolds 30,000 years ago in the Upper Palaeolithic Era, the closing act of Europe’s Old Stone Age.
It is a time of change and transition, a time in which abstract thought and creativity begin to emerge in their modern form. In all, it is a period evoked perfectly by Robinson’s choice of an adolescent protagonist.
His young hero Loon is an apprentice shaman in a small community along what will someday be known as the Ardèche River in southern France.
When we first meet the boy he is enduring his “wander”, a solo rite where he must “face something, learn something, accomplish something, change into something else: a sorcerer, a man of the world”.
It is a demanding experience for Loon but also an inspired means for his creator to introduce the basics of Palaeolithic life. Thus before the reader meets the rest of Loon’s “Wolf Pack”, they too have to undergo an initiation. Loon’s wander teaches how to start fires and snare prey, how to deal with adversity and, crucially, how Robinson’s early people conceptualise themselves.
We are in an adjusted mind-set as a result when finally allowed to meet the rest of the novel’s cast: Thorn, the cranky but ultimately kind-hearted current shaman; Heather, “the midwife, the herb woman, the loudmouth, the witch, the deadly poisoner”, the book’s sympathetic heart; and Elga, the long-legged bringer of change with whom Loon inevitably falls in love.
Though the plot is straightforward bildungsroman material, Shaman brims over with some of the finest writing Robinson has yet produced. It immerses us in a vivid world of flickering lamplight and intricate ritual, a life of “smoke and mushrooms and dancing and flagellation”. The author’s pedigree as a writer capable of bringing landscape to life in all its wild variety is again confirmed by a story which ranges from the Wolf Pack’s camp beneath the famous stone arch of Pont d’Arc to its caribou hunting ground on the northern slopes of the Massif Centrale. The second half of the novel travels ever further, visiting the “Northerners” whose territory abuts “a stupendous white wall”, the edges of the ice cap itself.
Most vivid of all are Loon and Thorn’s journeys deep beneath the earth. Robinson sets most of the novel around the Chauvet Cave site, home to some of the oldest, most spectacular prehistoric art in the world (readers may know it from Werner Herzog’s recent documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams). Robinson interprets these paintings as “earthblood and charcoal” offerings, a way for the pack to tell Mother Earth what animals are needed for the hunters and a means for individual shamans to honour those who have come before.
In an ancestral tribute of his own, the author derives much of the factual detail regarding Palaeolithic existence from research and expert speculation on the people who created Chauvet’s mysterious galleries of horses and bison.
Of course, this is not to say that the novel is a dry recitation of anthropological facts. Far from it. The pack’s sexual politics are, for example, as developed and intricate as any contemporary society.
Meanwhile, its members transcend their somewhat stock origins and achieve a credible life of their own. In particular, Robinson’s shamans are a colourful lot who consume heroic quantities of “berry mash” to “launch their spirits out of their bodies”. They are part-medicine men, part-counsellors, and deeply immersed in oral literature.
Through them the author rejects the so-called Great Leap Forward, eschewing any notion of a sudden cognitive revolution in favour of the slow accumulation of human knowledge over generations. “It’s fragile what I know,” Thorn tells Loon.
He must pass on his wisdom the same way embers from an old fire are preserved to light a new one. In fact, this is exactly the lesson which Loon and the reader learn on the first night of the boy’s wander: the difficulty of kindling a fresh spark, a symbolic new idea.
Closely allied to the book’s emphasis on socio-cultural continuity is Robinson’s use of an enigmatic narrator, a kind of anima mundi referring to itself as “The Third Wind”.
This omniscient presence speaks to us in our vernacular and so allows the author sidestep the issue of just what language his characters are conversing in. To generate a sense of antiquity for their short utterances, the author instead digs into his linguistic rattle-bag. Proto-Indo-European, Basque, and even a touch of Old English are all apparent in the speech which “The Third Wind” reports to us, and, though true linguists will dismiss this as a fluff approach, it is both systematic and surprisingly effective in a fictional context.
Indeed, Robinson’s artistic licence is well judged in this regard for, at its heart, Shaman is a novel about how artists find new ways of representing the past. “Remember the old ways and all the old stories,” Thorn teaches.
For Robinson, stories are about optimism and the belief that life will always go on. Shaman is no different. It is an intelligent, and at times mesmerising novel. The perfect book for archaeology buffs, those who love the outdoors, or readers who prize an unusual perspective in their fiction.
Val Nolan lectures on contemporary literature at NUI Galway.