Fate can be pictured as a strange combination of accident and implacable necessity, as in the story told by Somerset Maugham in his play “Sheppey”.
The story tells of how the servant of a merchant in Baghdad comes home from the market with the frightening news that he was jostled by a woman in the crowd – it was Death – who looked at him and made a threatening gesture.
The merchant lends his horse to his servant who gallops away to Samarra. Then the merchant goes to the market, finds Death and asks her why she threatened his servant. There was no threat, she replies, just a gesture of surprise at seeing him in Baghdad when she had an appointment with him that very night in Samarra.
Or take the ancient Greek story of Oedipus and how the oracle at Delphi predicted he would kill his father and marry his mother. On hearing this, the young Oedipus flees from his home and those he thinks are his parents. He doesn’t know he had been adopted and on the road to Thebes has an altercation with a stranger, who turns out to be his real father, and kills him. Oedipus goes on to solve the riddle of the Sphinx and marries the widow of the stranger he killed…
These stories come to mind when reading “The immortalists”, a tale about four siblings – Simon, Klara, Daniel and Varya – who as children in the 1960s in their New York neighbourhood visit a psychic who has the reputation of telling people the day on which they will die. They are each given a date and it is this knowledge that kicks off the four interrelated stories of their lives as they grow up.
Simon is told he will die young and, because he believes it, is determined not to suppress his homosexual nature. He takes off for San Francisco and recklessly lives life to the full before dying of AIDS on the very day the psychic gave him.
There is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy at work because if an early death hadn’t been predicted he would probably have stayed at home and looked after his widowed mother who badly needed his companionship.
Different possibilities always exist and the ones that happen to unfold led to particular moments regardless of the degree of premeditation. Events can be retroactively positioned so as to produce a causal chain that makes the result appear inevitable.
Let us say that an event happens to accidently take place. However, it can also be accounted for by positing necessity as its cause; it had to happen. This allows necessity to be presented as an organizing force but this force is actually retrospective, put there after the event.
Such reflections about twists of fate swirl around when reading what happens to Klara, Daniel and Varya after their brother’s early death.
Klara teaches herself magic and becomes a successful performer; Daniel works as a military doctor; Varya conducts research into aging out of guilt for the family’s curse.
“The immortalists” percolates with ideas and, as it says on the front cover, if you were told the exact day on which you would die how would you choose to live?
“The immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin is published by Tinder Press.
(Photos of author and cover from the publisher’s webpage)