Marek S. Huberath, an author who has so far become well-known and highly regarded mainly among fans of fantasy, has now produced one of the best and most original books of the past few months. The book in question is his lengthy novel (almost 800 pages long), The Cities Under the Rock. Kraków-based Huberath has taken on an unusual task, offering a modified formula for the fantasy novel. Authors of this variety of fantasy usually source their ideas from Celtic or Germanic sagas, and spice them up with motifs drawn from mediaeval history. Huberath on the other hand combines motifs typical of Tolkien-style fiction with stories from the Bible and the Apocrypha, thus creating a biblical version of fantasy.
The main hero of The Cities Under the Rock is a historian of Mediterranean culture called Humphrey Adams, Jr (personifying the first father, Adam), who has lost his way in life. During a visit to the Vatican he comes across a labyrinth of corridors, which turns out to be a passage into the spirit world. Adams gets to know the cities of the title, which are ruled by two fallen angels, Anthropostoma and the Lord from the Sea, meets a succession of women, hits the very bottom of the spirit-world hierarchy, and along the way changes from a weedy scientist into a real, tough man.
Huberath has given the novel a structure that allows us to interpret it in many ways and at various levels. In The Cities Under the Rock we find fast-moving action full of sudden twists and turns, an intertextual game with the Christian tradition, an alluring but also shocking vision of the spirit world largely inspired by the paintings of Hieronimus Bosch, the tale of an evil that cannot be eliminated from the human world or locked away for once and for all “under the Rock”, and the story of a search for love. Huberath writes as much for the average fan of fantasy as for readers looking for some intellectual stimulus. And only the real masters of fiction can do that.
This corridor too ended in an iron gate, behind which there was a small round room with two more doors. The consistency was truly tiresome. On the left-hand door there was a seal on a little chain made of white metal – undoubtedly a label from the Vatican Museum storerooms. He examined it: it was shiny and brand new with the word “Silvestere” embossed on it in graceful lettering. He couldn’t have explained breaking it to even the dullest of officials.
So he looked behind the right door: once again there was a gently winding corridor, with rough likenesses of insects and spiders made of mosaics on the walls and black-and-white images of a land monster or his sea comrade under foot. He passed a pedestal with a fly made of greenish marble. It wasn’t a patch on the previous likenesses. Its mouth and proboscis were made to look like the jaws of a vertebrate. The ancients had no magnifying glasses, but all the works of the mysterious Sharp-Sighted Master were gathered together in the previous corridor. Further on there were some small sculptures of flies, scorpions, and finally a pair of mosquitoes made mainly of bent wire. He didn’t notice a single image of a bee, neither here nor earlier. Here there were carelessly made exhibits, feeble reflections of the originals. They lacked that special application of the chisel that changes a craftsman’s product into a work of art. At the end of the corridor there was a small door, behind which there was another small room and two more entrances without seals leading to more corridors, full of even poorer replicas of insects and arachnids, and some simplistic black-and-white mosaics.
The sameness of all the little rooms and corridors was tiring. There seemed to be an endless maze of them. His hand and side were hurting; he was afraid the strong punch of the pincers had broken his ribs. His last rib was especially painful and seemed to be too short. “If it were broken at a right angle to the inside it would be sticking deep in my liver. No, that’s unlikely…” He cautiously added both the corridors he had explored to the account of the “Busca dell’Inferno” and turned back. The most valuable items from the storerooms were kept in the sealed corridors. The colour mosaics were only set into the walls there too. Adams took a greedy look at the sealed door.
The lead did not give way easily, and he had to twist the little chain. Indeed, the top class sculptures were on display here. The first was a complete reconstruction of the Venus de Milo. When set in motion, with a beautiful, flowing gesture of her hand, made of gemstones held together with metal joints, she took hold of the knot of her robe and let it slip to the ground, leaving her standing naked before the astounded Adams. The sheet-metal robe had divided into two stiff pieces and fell with a crash into a hollow in the pedestal. It must have slipped down a runner that was invisible from the front, because the goddess’ marble body remained intact. Then the sculpture raised its head a bit and froze, fixing its gaze not on, but just next to him. He carefully walked around it and inspected it from behind. The mechanism controlling the goddess was not capable of any other movements. With the arms and completely naked she was enchanting.
Adams was no longer convinced that the Ostian likeness was the most beautiful.
“I was right! So they have survived!”
On the next pedestal there was a magnificent insect resembling a flying scorpion with the end of its abdomen coiled; all it lacked were the gripping pincers. It had large, membranous wings made of thin, filigree wrought metal. A mecopteron.
“Better not go too close… The scorpion injuries are bad enough,” muttered Adams.
Either he stepped on the release mechanism, or his voice made the air shudder, causing the mecopteron to come to life. It began to beat its wings steadily and move its head up and down.
“The ancients were better than it seems from what’s left of them. Time is cruel to machinery.”
He noticed that his dangling hand was bleeding. The blood was welling up, and any abrupt movement would be enough to break the dam of the thin scab. His footsteps were marked by dark drops.
He could have sworn the denuded Venus de Milo was turning after him, as her gaze seemed to keep following him. Now and then he heard a mysterious scratching noise behind him, though as he peeked out of the corner of his eye he never once saw her move.
The next pedestal, made of polished travertine, only hosted some rather tinny little leaves and wire grass.
“Some tired Nike could very well sit here…”, he thought, “or some other ancient Kaśka”.
Now and then something started rustling or rattling – Adams’ presence set a lot of machinery in motion. When he had guessed that the “mechanitons” existed, he had never imagined they reached such a high standard. There were not many references to suggest they existed at all. A lot of poetical phrases would have to be reinterpreted now.
Whoosh! Slap! An arrow let fly by Cupid from the opposite side of the corridor hit the floor next to Adams’ foot. He jumped aside, but at the same time something grabbed him painfully by the heel. He tugged hard, but couldn’t pull his foot free. He tumbled to the floor and found himself tussling with a long, writhing snake. A metal scale wounded him in the other leg, just above the ankle. The mechanical reptile was quite slender, and by gripping it firmly in both hands he could make it arch its back. Not designed for this sort of strain, the whole structure began to creak. Clamped round his trainer, the reptile’s jaws weren’t trying to get a better grip, though its metal eyes were following Adams’ every movement.
His leg was burning with unbearable pain as he destroyed the jewel of the ancients’ mechanised art. With its back damaged, the snake lost all coordination. Now he could twist the captured end of its tail in all directions until it broke off entirely. The connector bands and rods grated as they gave way. He reached for the arrow and thrust it between the snake’s jaws to prise them apart, but it snapped. Cupid’s second arrow caught his sleeve. He hadn’t noticed that Cupid was aiming at him. He reached for the arrow and used it to prise the snake’s jaws open as it went on twisting wildly. The graze on his hand ruptured and the arrow snapped, but the reptile’s grip slackened.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones