The Fifth Head of Cerberus
Like so much of Gene Wolfe’s writing, this book is a puzzle in which the author uses ambiguity to make the reader question everything he thinks he knows about the world of the book as he is reading it. It is set in a colonial environment; on the surface, the difference between the dominant colonial culture and the subservient aboriginal culture seems to be clear cut. However, the author very craftily undermines the dichotomies of colonizer / colonized, civilized / primitive, advanced / retarded, human / bestial, teacher / pupil, parent / child and doctor / patient (not to mention father / son).
The colonial context would appear to signal that this is a political work, but I feel Wolfe is primarily interested in this context as a way of exploring philosophical concerns, namely the nature of identity and what it means to be human. In the first part, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus,” the concept of cloning is used to ask the question: what is an individual? Are Number 5, his father and Mr. Million all the same person? The anthropologist John V. Marsch, who makes an appearance, seems to think so, although all three behave differently. The second part, “”A Story,” by John V. Marsch” is a retelling of an aboriginal myth which has been passed down orally for two centuries. In this story natural clones (identical twins) are separated at birth and raised in different cultures. The story shows the efforts they make to distinguish themselves. This story was apparently written by John V. Marsch, after he had been replaced by an aboriginal (Victor Trenchard) and must have been part of the package the officer examines in the third part, “V. R. T.”. “V. R. T.” asks the question, who is human? Is it the original human John V. Marsch, or the aboriginal shape-shifter who takes his place? The replacement is in many ways more humane than the original. Also, he is certainly a better anthropologist. He is able to ground himself in the culture of the prison and communicate with other inmates, things the original, as depicted, would have been highly unlikely to accomplish. The irony is that it is this most human of all the characters in the book that is incarcerated and cut off from human society.
Much of Wolfe’s work is written in the first person, and Wolfe’s first person narrators are always unreliable. This not only adds a level of ambiguity, it’s an accurate reflection of the way people are. In the first person narratives of our lives that we all construct, none of us are reliable. Or perhaps I should say we are all reliably unreliable. Also, Wolfe never says anything about his characters directly. This is very different from the way Stableford in Dies Irae was constantly putting the narrative on hold so he could tell the reader about his characters. When reading Wolfe the reader must always look for subtle hints and be prepared to draw conclusions on the basis of what has been left out. This and Wolfe’s haunting use of language are two of the main factors that distinguish him from other writers. The Fifth Head of Cerberus is an excellent illustration of his great skill and accomplished story-telling. He manages to comment on meaningful subjects while creating real characters who do and say interesting things, and at the same time the three parts of the book intertwine to tell a coherent story. Not an easy stunt to pull off.