The Miracle of Apu-Punchau
In The Book of the New Sun, no mystery is more baffling to me than what occurs in the stone town in the final chapter of the second book The Claw of the Conciliator. After their experiences at the House Absolute and the subsequent parting of ways with Baldanders and Dr. Talos, Severian, traveling again with Dorcas and the rapidly fading Jolenta, traverse miles of pampas heading ever northward toward the city of Thrax. Stopping to rest one evening, and to nurse Jolenta who, in the absence of Dr. Talos' treatments and ministrations is losing her glamour and apparently her life force, the trio enters a stone town. In his excellent Lexicon Urthus, Michael Andre-Driussi has this to say about the stone town:
[A]n ancient ruin located in the arid lands between the House Absolute and Thrax. It is a magical area which seems to draw travelers in, stepping into (or "bending") their path if they try to go around. This is the town that Apu-Punchau visited and made his capital in the Age of Myth. His house is located here and his spirit is the vivimancer that draws people.
Wolfe's description of the stone town shows it to be quite beautiful in its desolation. What we found instead was scarcely the remnant of a town. Coarse grass grew between the enduring stones that had been its pavements, so that from a distance it seemed hardly different from the surrounding pampa. Fallen columns lay among this grass like the trunks of trees in a forest devastated by some frenzied storm; a few others still stood, broken and achingly white beneath the sun. Lizards with bright, black eyes and serrated backs lay frozen in the light. The buildings were mere hillocks from which more grass sprouted in soil caught from the wind.
(That description reminds me so powerfully of the excellent PlayStation 2 videogame The Shadow of the Colossus that it is almost eerie. I would not be at all surprised if the designers of that game had, among other things, been deeply influenced by some of Wolfe's writing.)
Making camp for the night, Severian and Dorcas fear, rightly so, that Jolenta will be dead soon. As they settle in, they see what appears at first to be a meteor but realize that what they are truly seeing are sparks from a campfire on a nearby rooftop. As they make their way to that stone hut and climb to the roof, they discover an old woman, the Cumaean, a young woman, her acolyte Merryn, and a third man, Hildegrin the Badger (who Severian has encountered twice before, in the necropolis in Nessus and in the Botanical Gardens). The three are there to summon Apu-Punchau at the behest of Vodalus, who wishes to return the stagnating race of Man to its former glory by destroying the Autarch and the Commonwealth. When asked about Apu-Punchau and this summoning, Hildegrin answers:
"Bringin' back the past," Hildegrin told her grandly, "Divin' back into the time of old Urth's greatness. There was somebody who used to live in this here place we're sittin' on that knew things that could make a difference. I intend to have him up. It'll be the high point, if I may say it, of a career that's already considered pretty spectacular in knowin' circles."
Later, Dorcas asks the Cumaean who Apu-Punchau was, and the Cumaean is silent, leaving Merryn to answer:
"Less than a legend, for not even the scholars now remember his story. The Mother has told us that his name means the Head of Day. In the earliest eons he appeared among the people here and taught them many wonderful secrets. Often he vanished, but always he returned. At last he did not return, and invaders laid waste to his cities. Now he shall return for the last time."
Just a few lines later, Merryn offers some subtle but very crucial information about the nature and structure of time. Gradually, the reader should be learning more and more about Severian's role in all of this as well as his ability to walk the corridors of time himself.
"All time exists. That is the truth beyond the legends the epopts tell. If the future did not exist now, how could we journey toward it? If the past does not exist still, how could we leave it behind us? In sleep the mind is encircled by its time, which is why we so often hear the voices of the dead there, and receive intelligence of things to come."
A strange ceremony begins in which the group joins hands, men to one side and women to the other, and the Cumaean, who is really a cacogen and not at all human, swallows a strange rod-like device. Severian feels his thoughts "surrounded by hers, as a fish in a bowl floats in a bubble of invisible water" and then his thoughts are hurled off among the ruins. When he comes to his senses, he is on the roof still, his mouth filled with blood from biting his tongue. At first he thinks he is alone, but he sees the vaporous and insubstantial shapes of his companions nearby. Hildegrin is a "phantom" while Jolenta is the "the dimmest of all, hardly present. More had been done to her than Merryn had guessed; I saw wires and bands of metal beneath her flesh, though even they were dim." Dorcas, while dim, is for some reason I have not yet figured out, "more solid in appearance than Hildegrin" while Merryn is a "black-clad doll" and the non-human Cumaean resembles "Something sleekly reptilian coiled about the glowing rod. I looked for the head but found none, though each of the patternings on the reptile's back was a face, and the eyes of each face seemed lost in rapture." How like a biblical angel does that description sound? Severian wisely surmises that they all "are seeing ourselves from a perspective longer than a single instant's." Which explains the phantom nature of their bodies.
After watching the dust swirl like a swarm of insects, beasts of burden appear and gradually before their eyes the stone town is rebuilt until it is once again complete. People appear, "a bandylegged race who walked like sailors and rolled cyclopean stones with the might of their wide shoulders" and soon a painted shaman dancing wildly enters the scene. There is the sound of drums, and by the echoes Severian can tell he is listening to them from a time when the stone town was surrounded by a great jungle. It is clear, at this point, the far past has connected with the present. Dancers follow this shaman in a snaking procession all the way to the blocked door of the house upon which Severian and his companions watch this all from. There is a crash, the stone slab of the door falls away, and then an odor like myrrh and roses wafts up. Again, the church!
The man that comes forth is amazing, and should be very familiar to readers. He has a face Severian has known since childhood (of course!), the face on the funeral bronze inside the mausoleum Severian played in as a child and which, by now, all readers should realize is Severian's own face. Severian is seeing Apu-Punchau, yet Apu-Punchau is, in every way, Severian. The Head of Day. The New Sun.
Apu-Punchau walks to the center of the crowd of dancers and raises his arms, staring directly at Severian and truly seeing him. At this moment, on his mission from Vodalus, the ghostly form of Hildegrin darts into the crowd and grabs Apu-Punchau. And here, a bizarre struggle ensues.
Apu-Punchau, I felt certain, did see him, just as he had seen us on the rooftop and as Isangoma had seen Agia and me. Yet I do not believe he saw Hildegrin as I saw him, and it may be that what he saw seemed as strange to him as the Cumaean had to me. Hildegrin held him, but he could not subdue him. Apu-Punchau struggled, but he could not break free. Hildegrin looked up to me and shouted for help.
I do not know why I responded. Certainly I no longer consciously desired to serve Vodalus and his purposes. Perhaps it was the lingering effect of the alzabo, or only the memory of Hildegrin's rowing Dorcas and me across the Lake of Birds.
I tried to push the bandylegged men away, but one of their random blows caught the side of my head and knocked me to my knees. When I rose again, I seemed to have lost sight of Apu-Punchau among the leaping, shrieking dancers. Instead there were two Hildegrins, one who grappled with me, one who fought something invisible. Wildly I threw off the first and tried to come to the aid of the second.
And then the passage ends. When the narrative begins again, Severian is returning to consciousness on the rooftop, in a driving rain, alone save for Dorcas and the corpse of Jolenta. And the book ends.
So...what? Two Hildegrins? Some struggle that ends with...what again? What the hell just happened and how is this some kind of climax? I've tried for decades to suss this out, and only now do I think I am finally making some kind of headway.
Readers of the books will know that Severian and Apu-Punchau are one and the same, although I believe this is explored much more in the later two books as well as the fifth, The Urth of the New Sun. That explains some things but why two Hildegrins? And why the sudden, mysterious non-ending to the entire struggle? For once, I believe Robert Borski has it absolutely right. From his collection of essays, The Solar Labyrinth.
To reprise, if perhaps confusedly so, these events: at the behest of Hildegrin the Badger, the Cumaean and Merryn conjure up a living Stone Town, which is reigned over by Apu-Punchau, an earlier iteration of Severian. Hildegrin, it seems, seeks knowledge, explaining, "There was somebody who used to live in this here place we're sittin' on that knew things that could make a difference." But when he attempts to seize Apu-Punchau, the timeline fractures. Severian, while remaining yet himself, also becomes Apu-Punchau - hence sees two Hildegrins, one from his own perspective, the other from Apu-Punchau's. Severian - as Apu-Punchau - subsequently attempts to free himself from Hildegrin #1, while ur-Severian attempts to aid Hildegrin #2, who appears to be wrestling with somebody invisible - Apu-Punchau. But when the two Hildegrins approach each other too closely, they wind up obliterating one another, and the timeline reneals itself.
That is, I think, the best explanation I have yet come across and while it does not fully explain the complexities of Severian's existence in multiple parts of his timeline at once, it goes a long way toward rectifying some of what could at first be mistaken for inconsistencies. I am more eager than ever to reach the fifth book and hopefully finally understand how there are multiple Severians, and how they are all yet the same.
I've puzzled over why Wolfe chose to end Claw this way and I think it is more to lay down story threads than for anything else. The Apu-Punchau connection doesn't pay off for the reader for another three books, but Wolfe is doing his best to show, without telling, that Severian exists outside of and all throughout time. The subtlety with which Wolfe conveys this information is almost maddening. I know I missed it entirely on my first and my second readings. It's all there but, as with nearly everything Wolfe writes, looking at what isn't written is as important, if not moreso, as reading what is written.