“Lapvona,” a 2022 novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, is a dark and enthralling tale set in a medieval village, spanning five seasons.
The novel’s exploration of human nature’s darker aspects, through vivid and often disturbing imagery, offers a raw and unflinching look at a society grappling with moral and existential crises.
At the heart of this story is Marek, a boy born under tragic circumstances—his mother Agata, pregnant by her brother, was captured and abused by Jude, a shepherd who claims Marek as his own. Marek’s life is marked by physical deformities and the brutal treatment from Jude, driving him to believe that his suffering is a pathway to God’s favor.
The only solace in his harsh existence comes from Ina, his wet nurse.
Marek’s world is further complicated by his friendship with Jacob, the son of the village lord, Villiam.
This relationship is tainted by power dynamics, with Marek often at the mercy of Jacob’s whims. A fateful day sees them at a cliff’s edge, mesmerized by the beauty of colorful birds.
In a shocking turn, Marek causes Jacob’s death, setting off a chain of events that drastically alters his life.
Upon confessing the act to Jude, Marek is surrendered to Lord Villiam as a form of retribution.
In the lord’s manor, Marek is thrust into a world of decadence and moral decay, indulging in Villiam’s hedonistic lifestyle while battling inner turmoil and guilt.
He is attended to by Lispeth, a young servant who harbored affection for Jacob, and now serves Marek with a silent loathing.
Lapvona, the village, faces its own trials. A severe drought devastates the land, leading to desperate measures among its inhabitants. Jude, in a disturbing act of survival, consumes the body of a deceased villager, Klim.
Meanwhile, Marek, donning the robes of Father Barnabas, inadvertently leads Jude to believe he has committed a grave sin. This misunderstanding causes Jude to flee, abandoning what he thinks is evidence of his cannibalism.
The drought also reveals the darker aspects of Villiam’s rule. He hoards water and manipulates his subjects through banditry and the corrupt priest, Father Barnabas. Agata, Marek’s mother, arrives at the manor, again pregnant and victim to Jude’s brutality.
Villiam, deluded, sees her as a virgin mother of a new Christ, marrying her for fame and fortune.
As the village recovers, Grigor, a villager, uncovers the truth about Villiam’s hoarding of water. He becomes enchanted by Ina, who has replaced her blind eyes with those of a horse and claims to be enlightened.
Meanwhile, the manor is engulfed in turmoil. Father Barnabas, tormented by guilt, ends his life. Villiam and Lispeth perish from poisoned wine, a consequence of Villiam’s wife Dibra’s vengeful brother.
In the aftermath, Marek ascends to lordship, albeit controlled by Dibra’s brother. The novel reaches its climax as Ina, locked away with Agata, is found nurturing a baby she claims as her own.
Marek, discovering Agata’s death, takes the child to the cliff where his life once irrevocably changed, leaving readers pondering the fate of the child and the future of Lapvona.
Marek is the central character, born with a crooked spine and raised under the belief that his physical and emotional suffering is a sign of God’s favor.
He endures abuse from his father, Jude, and has a complex relationship with Jacob, the lord’s son. Marek’s life takes a dark turn when he inadvertently kills Jacob, leading him into a world of moral decay within Lord Villiam’s manor.
Jude, a shepherd, claims Marek as his son after abusing and imprisoning Marek’s mother, Agata. He is a harsh and abusive father, contributing to Marek’s troubled upbringing. Jude’s life spirals into further darkness during the drought, where he resorts to cannibalism for survival.
Agata, Marek’s mother, is a tragic figure who is raped by Jude and forced to bear his child. She reappears in the story pregnant and seeking refuge at the manor, where she becomes entangled in Lord Villiam’s delusion of fathering a new Christ.
Lord Villiam, the ruler of Lapvona, lives a life of excess and moral corruption. He is detached from reality and exploits his subjects through various means. His encounter with Marek leads to further indulgence in his vices and plays a significant role in the novel’s depiction of power and decadence.
Ina, Marek’s wet nurse, is one of the few characters who shows him kindness. She becomes a pivotal figure in the novel, particularly during the drought, when she resorts to extreme measures for survival. Her character evolves into a symbol of wisdom and mysticism in the village.
Jacob is Villiam’s son and Marek’s friend, although their friendship is marked by a power imbalance. His death at the hands of Marek sets off a significant chain of events in the story, affecting the lives of many characters.
Lispeth is a young servant girl who loved Jacob and later serves Marek in the manor with concealed hatred. Her character reflects the themes of unrequited love and bitterness that permeate the novel.
Father Barnabas is the local priest who colludes with Lord Villiam in manipulating and exploiting the villagers. His character represents the corruption and moral decay within religious institutions in the village.
Grigor is a villager who begins to question the motives of the bandits and the ruling class. His encounter with Ina leads him to see her as an enlightened figure, and he plays a role in uncovering some of the novel’s central truths.
1. The Corruption of Power and Moral Decay
At its core, “Lapvona” is a stark exploration of how power corrupts and leads to moral decay.
The character of Lord Villiam epitomizes this theme. As the ruler of Lapvona, Villiam’s detachment from the harsh realities faced by his subjects, coupled with his indulgence in a life of luxury and vice, showcases how power can distance an individual from empathy and ethical conduct.
Similarly, Marek’s transformation upon entering Villiam’s manor reflects how proximity to power can corrupt even the most innocent.
His journey from a subservient, abused child to a participant in Villiam’s decadent lifestyle illustrates the corrupting influence of power and the moral compromises individuals make to attain or stay close to it.
2. Survival and Human Nature in Extreme Conditions
Moshfegh masterfully uses the setting of a drought-stricken medieval village to explore human behavior under extreme conditions.
The villagers’ desperate measures, including cannibalism and the acceptance of oppressive rule, serve as a commentary on the primal instincts that surface when survival is at stake. The drought acts as a catalyst, exposing the raw and often disturbing aspects of human nature.
This theme is particularly evident in Jude’s transformation from a brutal shepherd to a cannibal, illustrating the extremes one might go to when faced with life-threatening circumstances.
The villagers’ willingness to endure Villiam’s tyranny in exchange for survival further underscores this theme, revealing the often dark and desperate choices made in the face of adversity.
3. The Fluidity of Identity and Perception
“Lapvona” also delves into the fluidity of identity and how perceptions can be manipulated or changed.
Marek’s identity shifts throughout the novel, from a shepherd’s son to a pseudo-noble in Villiam’s manor. His changing roles highlight how identity can be malleable and influenced by external circumstances.
Ina, the blind woman who gains temporary sight and replaces her eyes with those of a horse, symbolizes the idea that perception is not always tied to reality.
Her transformation and the villagers’ varying perceptions of her – from a wise woman to a witch – suggest that identity and perception are often in flux and can be reshaped by societal beliefs and personal experiences.
“Lapvona” by Ottessa Moshfegh is a profoundly dark and complex narrative that delves into themes of power, corruption, and survival in a medieval setting.
Moshfegh’s storytelling is both captivating and unsettling, compelling the reader to confront the harsh realities of human behavior and the consequences of societal collapse. The novel’s blend of historical ambiance with surreal elements creates a unique and thought-provoking reading experience.