Reading The Shadow of The Torturer – Chapter III: The Autarch’s Face

SYNOPSIS: The day after the events in the graveyard, Severian overhears one of the guild’s “clients” (i.e. prisoners) mention Vodalus. This reminds him of the coin Vodalus gave him, which on one side features a spaceship, and on the other an androgynous face (the image of the Autarch). He buries the coin in the mausoleum. Time passes, and Severian begins to question his own sanity, wondering if he is a murderer who just invented the character of Vodalus as a way of explaining the fight in the graveyard to himself.

ANALYSIS: This chapter is mainly dedicated to describing more of the life of the torturers. Torture is for them a science to be approached in a clinically detatched fashion – the client who appears is used as a specimen of proper flaying technique to be shown to the apprentices. The horror of it is, of course, that this sort of brutality is approached by the characters as just a job. It’s a bit like a more gruesome version of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.  And this, what I suppose you could call casual, insitutionalized evil has been, and is fairly prevalent in the world. It’s almost something of a cliche point now to say that evil often looks like you and me, and that the circumstances of our lives can often make us blind to injustices that are either happening right in front of us, or with our explicit cooperation – I say almost because it still often hits very close to home.

Severian’s confusion over the Autarch’s face is a bit of early foreshadowing about his character. When he buries the coin, Severian recites a little verse:

Where I put you, there you lie,
Never let a stranger spy,
Like glass grow to any eye,
Not of me.

Here be safe, never leave it,
Should a hand come, deceive it,
Let strange eyes not believe it,
Till I see.

As far as I can tell, this is original to the novel, though I could be wrong.

It was in this instant of confusion that I realized for the first time that I am in some degree insane. It could be argued that it was the most harrowing of my life. I had lied often to Master Gurloes and Master Palaemon, to Master Malrubius while he still lived, to Drotte because he was captain, to Roche because he was older and stronger than I, and to Eata and the other smaller apprentices because I hoped to make them respect me. Now I could no longer be sure my own mind was not lying to me; all my falsehoods were recoiling on me, and I who remembered everything could not be certain those memories were more than my own dreams.

This is the first really explicit indication that Severian’s narrative should be taken with a grain of salt. Both interpretations give rise to suspicion: if this is true, then he will not necessarily be aware when he is lapsing into falsehood. If it is false, then he is trying to give himself a bit of leeway to fudge the facts.

About Josh W

Scribbler and doodler
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1 Response to Reading The Shadow of The Torturer – Chapter III: The Autarch’s Face

  1. One thing I realized in my first experience with Gene Wolfe, Latro in the Mist, is that every statement must be examined. It seems impossible to catch all the inaccuracies or falsehoods in the narrative, and Severian’s untruths are even harder to catch than Latro’s. Latro is an honest man after all, while Severian admits to being a liar.

    I finished The Shadow of the Torturer about a week ago. A very interesting book, though the action unfolds slowly.

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