The novel begins with a man known only as a claimant living in the Gentlest Village. His only contact is with the examiner who is teaching him the names of everyday objects and the routines of daily life. Gradually the lessons become more complex and eventually he is allowed to interact with others. A woman named Hilda has an intense impact on him, and things become more complicated when she tells him the village is not what it seems.
The claimant is told that he was very ill and is now in recovery. The recovery process is known as the Process of Villages. As he progresses, the Claimant is moved from one village to another. If he fails to meet expectations, he is forced to begin the process again; one examiner estimates, “that the claimant has been reprocessed a minimum of eight times.” The examiner indicates that the Claimant is not “recovering” when she writes, “The claimant’s memories intrude at an alarming rate.” She is happier with his progress when she records, “He speaks to me of his memories as I have invoked them – that is, as my memories which I have seeded into his dreams.”
The reader learns about the claimant’s situation gradually – like the claimant learns to function in the world. Is Hilda correct when she suggests that the Process of Villages is actually a fogging: “’It is an injection. . . . The injection changes you, sends you deeper into yourself, in order that you can learn to protect yourself from life’s difficulties. It does other things, too. It ruins your memory, and you lose most things you knew.’” Could that be the cure for suicidal tendencies? In the last third of the book, in a conversation between a petitioner and an interlocutor “in the office of the cure,” we learn the full explanation of how the Claimant came to be going through the Process of Villages, but by then most readers will have surmised the truth.
The book is really an examination of what it means to be human and asks the reader to consider to what extent he/she would go in order to escape emotional pain. Is it better to become “a shell,” someone “who is somewhat absent”? At one point, an examiner tells the Claimant, “Sometimes I will tell you stories. They may be full of things that you do not understand. That is not important. It isn’t important that you understand what I say. What’s important is that you behave as a human being should when someone is telling a story. So, listen properly, make noises at appropriate times, and enjoy the fact that I am speaking to you. . . . Much of the speech we do is largely meaningless and is just meant to communicate and validate small emotional contracts.” Is it possible to have a meaningful relationship without the possibility of emotional pain? Or does being fully human mean that one must experience painful emotions like grief?
The first part of the novel makes for interesting reading, but the second section, with its dense writing and convoluted sentence structure (“That is how I was as a child. I want you to know that, Rana told me, so I said to the interlocutor”) is tedious. Also, because we are constantly reminded that the petitioner is telling his story after the fact, we are distanced from what happened and the emotional impact is lost. Of course, that is what the petitioner wants – some distance. Is there an implied warning to be careful of one’s wishes?