A review of Charles de Lint’s Mulengro (Orb, 2003)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Charles de Lint’s novel Mulengro: A Romany Tale is fundamentally about culture clashes and the competing interests of tradition and insularity against cultural assimilation. Mulengro is about a group of Gypsies (Romany people) who are being hunted by a man (called Mulengro by the Gypsie leaders) who is trying to hold on to his view of what the Romany should be. He views the modern Gypsies as marhime (impure) due to their exposure to Gaje (non-Gypsy) culture. Mulengro’s ideas are born out of the Nazi concentration camps of WWII where Gypsies were tortured and murdered with the Nazi ideology of racial purity, but, rather than fighting against notions of racial purity, Mulengro internalises them and begins his personal quest to try to purify the Gypsies of any impurities from contact with Gaje and return them to his notion of what Gypsies should be. After reading this novel, even looking at the name “Mulengro” on the cover of the book inspires a shudder and the reader often worries that the echoes of the name in his or her mind might call something out from between the pages.
De Lint creates a sense of ominous horror in Mulengro where the shadows themselves are fearsome and the creep of the fog is the breath of spirits and spectres of evil. De Lint takes his reader into a realm of magic, but, as is normal for his books, that magical realm is both awesome and awful at the same time – it is a place of both incredible beauty and incredible fear and the awareness of magic is itself a step into danger. He reminds us that knowledge of the supernatural means that the supernatural now knows about us as well and not everything in the otherworld is happy and filled with light. De Lint’s world is one that is dark and terrifying where the reader questions everything and is reminded that his or her very foundations are shaky.
Mulengro is a novel of border-walkers, people on the fringes, straddling two (or more) worlds and trying to find their identity between socially defined boundaries. His characters are disenfranchised Gypsies, Romany who are trying to fit in with Gaje culture, a hippie trying to continue to live in the 60s as all of the idealisms of the era have dissolved around him, police officers who are haunted by the spirits of victims.
De Lint explores the clash that occurs when the insularity and secrecy of the Gypsies comes into contact with the insularity of the police; when the inexplicability of Gypsie mysticism confronts the police need for concrete, easily explainable answers. Yet, de Lint brings these conflicting communities into confrontation together, challenging them to forge a community out of difference, diversity, and distrust (and that community doesn’t just include the living).
Characters find themselves between the worlds of ethnicity and majority, tradition and modernity, flexible truths and The Truth, living and dead. Mulengro provides important lessons, challenges, and questions for those of us who straddle social borders – those of us who see the shadows at the fringes of the light because we are, ourselves, relegated to the fringe.
Mulengro is one of de Lint’s older books, but is still worth being discussed, and still socially relevant. You can explore more about Charles de Lint at http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/