The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: The Flame is Green


R.A. Lafferty’s next book is, if such qualifications make a difference, an historical rather than an SF book. The Flame is Green was first published in 1971, but my copy is a republication by Corroborree Press, in 1985, in an illustrated edition matching its sequel, Half a Sky, which I obtained and read roughly contemporaneously with its publication: it was some fifteen to twenty years before I read The Flame is Green. This is also the first book in The Cosquin Chronicles, a four-book sequence of which only the first two have ever been published. Sardinian Summer and First and Last Island are just two of a dozen unpublished R.A. Lafferty novels, and I hope to live long enough to see these and all the others into print.
The Flame is Green is a difficult book to review. Some of that is that it is but part of a larger story, only half of which can currently be known. Some of it is that it is an at times unfathomable mixture of histories, between the known of the world in the years 1845 to 1849, and the allegorical/symbolic history of Lafferty’s division of things into the the Green Revolution and the Red.
In setting up this opposition between two Revolutions, Lafferty is nailing firmly his colours to the mast. Red links to the redness of communism, which is in the future of this history, but he links it to many of the terms I would instinctively respond to, to liberalism, to progressivism, branding these as the returning Red Failure, a disease that is the death of the individual.
The novel follows the adventures of Dana Coscuin, an Irishman of Bantry Bay who finds himself summoned to the Green Revolution by the mysterious and distant Count Cyril Prasinos. The Count Cyril does not appear, his whereabouts and lineaments are unknown, although a couple of times the tow-headed, stocky and vigorous Dana will be mistaken in the street for a younger version of him.
But Count Cyril is by way of being a leader, and Dana – who is already aware of an unnatural passion for his cousin Aileen Dinaan that sets both of them at risk – accepts his instruction to take ship, on an invisible ship that is not going there, to Hendaye in Spain, and there to ascend to the Carlist Hills, and take instruction from the Black Pope.
The book coincides with the period of the loosely defined Second Carlist War, although what military aspects of this war there were took place in Catalonia, the Basque country, on the other side of the Iberian peninsula from Hendaye. The Carlists were anti-liberals, opposed to the accession of Queen Isabella, because she was a woman, though in the book the Carlists concerns focus more on the direct evil of Isabella, alleging sexual activity with prohibited persons from well before she attained the age of maturity.
But Dana’s course is a tainted one. He makes deep friends of the formidably ugly Malandrino Brume, and his excessively active wife Magdalena. His course is joined, loosely, with the giant German, Kemper Gruenland, with the black man Charley Oceaan, and the Sardinian Tancredi Cima, a mutterer. These are his allies, his Company.
And from the beginning his direct enemy, his immediate opposite, is the knife-man Jude Revanche, whom Dana must finally face in duel, though Revanche is by the blind, though not less dangerous: a duel with a blind man is one that cannot be won on all the levels such things must be won upon.
Yet for a long period, seemingly two years, Dana betrays his company, his Revolution, for lust of Elena Prado y Bosca, who is also an opposite to herself, who is Muerta de Boscage, the Bruja, the death-witch of the Red Revolution. It begins with a meeting on the road, with unusually rough behaviour by Dana towards a woman who carries with her sweet innocence and something of the snake. Dana’s reputation is destroyed, with both the Carlists and the Red Revolution untrusting of him, but he and Elena/ Muerta sin and sin again.
Dana falls not when he sees Elena but when he sees Muerta, the battle-witch, leading a raid on the Black Pope and the Carlists. He defends her from death. He saves her from Tancredi, who will kill her to save Dana, he nurses her, he is lost for those two years that are given as an abridgement, of which there are restrictions on the data. Even though it be more than a hundred, though less than two hundred years after. It is not even certain that all the parties are dead.
Here, it is appropriate to point out that Lafferty will tell you such things, and you will believe in them. He is a writer of fictions and he will tell you things that you know are impossible, or untrue, or incapable of being real, and you will read these things and believe them, unlike the late and infamous Erich von Daniken, purveyor of fictions and lies and gigantic distortions that were presented as true, that he marketed with incredible success as true, and who, had he told me the sun was shining outside, would have caused me to go outside in raincoat, with umbrella unfurled.
It is Brume that wins Dana back for the Green Revolution, Malandrino Brume who conducts him about Europe and its several sites and quarters. But Dana must return to Spain, where he is at risk from both sides, because he is put on this Earth to be the friend to Elena, whatever she be. He intends to marry her, but this is forbidden from all parties and from God. Instead, he is instructed to go to Paris, by a letter he cannot read, signed by Catherine Dembinska..
It is not just the mysterious Catherine who instructs Dana. He is instructed also by the Leader of the Red Revolution, Ifreann Chortovitch, he of the Irish/Polish name whose literal translation is Hell Son of the Devil. Ifreann, who also appears in the middle book of the Devil is Dead trilogy, proclaims himself the literal Son of the Devil. He is Dana’s great adversary. He is also to be the death of the Polish Countess Catherine Dembinska, she who is prophesied for Dana’s wife when he is still besotted by Elena Prado.
The Son of the Devil challenges Dana and his company in Paris, when they have taken over Ifreann’s house and thrown out his cohorts. He boasts and lords it, but the individual duels and combats between each band’s equivalents all go to the Green Revolution, and the only direct combat in which Dana faces Ifreann is to drink him under the table, a mighty feat treated as every bit as much a legendary achievement as any feat of arms.
But this is Lafferty’s way. All things are couched in symbols in which an Irish drinking competition renders as big a blow as any murder.
Though Dana doubts, though he is sent away, in the end he returns to wed Catherine, as if summoned. They love, they laugh, they play, they plan. The Company is to separate, to go to different fates for the next phase of the struggle, and Catherine blithely predicts that this will end with her murder and so it does, bloody and horrible, brutal and vile, at the hands of Ifreann, for which Dana challenges and duels him, and runs him through.
Thus ends the European phase of the Coscuin Chronicles. This is but one book of four, and only one other book was published, and that more than a decade later. People, we will see it in its due time, but for now we must turn our attention to other matters. The Flame is Green is true, but it is not the whole of the thing and we do not have the whole of it yet.
It’s not the best of Lafferty, for all that it comes from that earlier phase of his career when he had not yet turned wholly inwards and abandoned concessions to his readers. It suffers from being incomplete, or rather not intentionally incomplete, and perhaps it suffers from being not fantastic in a world that is not fantastic. We shall see what more we may think when we come to that land that lies beneath half a sky.

2 thoughts on “The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: The Flame is Green

  1. There is very definite hope of having the other two volumes out before too many more years go by. The quartet forms a really remarkable picture of 19th century history, mostly because of the sheer number of levels he’s operating on. It’s also an interesting counterpoint to the contemporaneous Okla Hannali, which is no less complex, but is much more focused, written as it is through the viewpoint of peoples who at that time had relatively little use for European history.

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