You can get a good overview of Emily Barton's fictional universe from her characters' names alone. First, there's the narrator, Yves Gundron. And then there's his brother, Mandrik le Chouchou. His wife, Adelaoda. Their daughter Elizaveta. The madwoman Vox Friedl. Andras Drck. Matthias Gansevvort. But of all the handles gleefully crashed together out of Nordic, Germanic, Russian and Latin odds and ends, the coolest name in "The Testament of Yves Gundron" may be that of Yves' neighbor, Ydlbert von Iggislau.
Ydlbert von Iggislau?
Meet the Mandragorans. They couldn't give you much help with spelling or pronunciation, since literacy is in short supply in Mandragora. As are electricity, paved roads and numbers over 20. Barton's simple-minded Mandragorans are congenial, Tolkienesque farmers who have managed to keep ignorant of the rest of the world for centuries -- lo-fi in the extreme. Only Mandrik has ever traveled outside the village; only he, the priest and the madwoman seem to suspect that life might comprise more than farm work.
But not for long. Yves, Ydlbert and their countrymen soon discover that their innocence is precarious -- vulnerable to the corrupting influence of technology and, especially, American interlopers. One by one, the Mandragorans come across hints that somewhere out there is a faster, more dangerous and more specific world. First, Yves invents
a harness that ups the ante on efficient production and transportation. And
then the ax really falls -- an anthropologist comes calling. Into
this Luddite paradise, with its self-sufficiency and its potage of phonemes, comes Ruth Blum of Cambridge, Mass.
Ruth, a single, sporty, hypereducated woman in her 20s, could almost be a refugee from a more conventional novel -- as if she's in this book poking around for a
new genre to call home. And for a while it seems she's found one, quietly
scribbling notes on her anthropological windfall. But in the inevitable paradox
of the social sciences, Ruth can't help becoming involved in her own experiment,
befriending Yves, seducing Mandrik, alienating Adelaoda. The Mandragorans, in
turn, study Ruth right back -- gleaning, finally, an appetite-whetting idea of what her world must be like. As their curiosity grows, they develop a three-dimensional psychology, in all its glory and pain. The Mandragorans, once peaceable and unreflective, become moody, jealous, angry and sick. They begin like characters in Boccaccio, all action, and end like figures in Blake, all interior life.
In the outside world, Mandrik warns his sheltered countrymen, "They'll want
it to be bright everywhere, all the time; wherever you go, there will be no
peace or darkness. You will be literally deluged with attention -- not with help
or with friendship, but with the relentless pursuit of information. You will
have no time to farm, only to answer questions."
He and Ruth stand nearly alone in their loyalty to the Mandragoran past. Ultimately, it seems a misplaced allegiance. "The Testament of Yves Gundron," Barton's first novel, is inventive and not short on pleasures (the simple fact of such eccentric scene-setting offers surprises on almost every page). But in the end, it's a relief to leave weird Mandragora. Too often, the novel punishes its characters for not resisting modernity strenuously enough -- not sticking with unpaved roads and unharnessed horses. But it shouldn't be heartbreaking that the Mandragorans, with all the world before them, want complexity and consciousness and the chance to fall from grace like the rest of us. Who can blame them?