Tag Archives: speculative fiction

Round-Up: Inoue, Barnes, Roberts, Liu

 

Yasushi Inoue’s The Hunting Gun is my first foray into Japanese literature. A novella, The Hunting Gun uses a narrative device that I recently came across in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer: the same set of contemporaneous events is described by three individuals, one after the other. Not only are there three different perspectives, three different sets of facts, but with each successive (re)telling, the story unfolds a little bit more, casting fresh (even contrary) light upon the previous narration. In The Hunting Gun, it is three letters written by three women to a man, triggered by a tragic death. What is most striking about The Hunting Gun is – like the Japanese art of bonsai – its sense of containment. In the three letters, you have betrayal, love, heartbreak, loss – themes that threaten to bubble up and spill over beyond the pages, but which always – somehow – remain there, within bounds. An instance:

“I knew love was like a clear stream that sparkled beautifully in the sun, and when the wind blew any number of soft ripples skittered across its surface, and its banks were gently held by the plants and trees and flowers, and it kept singing its pure music, always, as it grew wider and wider – that’s what love was to me. How could I have imagined a love that stretched out secretly, like an underground channel deep under the earth, flowing from who knew where to who knew where without ever feeling the sun’s rays?” 

Or:

“As you cooled, with the speed of a red-hot piece of iron plunged into water, I matched your coolness; and as I grew cold, you drew circles around me in your plummeting frigidity, until at last we found ourselves living here within this magnificently frozen world, in a household so cold one feels ice on one’s eyelashes.

There is a sense of balance, an almost preternatural poise in this language, where the most powerful emotions are distilled into language, but never reduced. To use Inoue’s own words, “transformed into [something] as limpid as water…“, and retaining the sense of “a blaze of flowers in the otherwise muted room.”

Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time left me rather conflicted. On the one hand, Barnes’ exquisitely crafted sentences, his wisdom and his insights, and his ability to crystallise those insights into limpid prose. The Noise of Time is a fictionalised biography of Dmitri Shostakovich, the famous 20th-Century Soviet composer, controversial because of his alleged compromises and complicity with the Stalinist regime. Barnes’ subject, then, compels him to explore some of those fundamental questions about the human condition, and especially, the human condition in the 20th century: the meaning of artistic and moral integrity, how totalitarianism can make the heart betray itself, and the ethical contortions compelled by tyranny. There are individual moments – captured, as ever, in perfectly complete sentences, which distil a thought just so – that are breathtaking. For instance: “we expect too much of the future – hoping that it will quarrel with the present…“; “Theories were clean and convincing and comprehensible. Life was messy and full of nonsense...”; “... not shattering, because that implied a single great crisis. Rather, what happened to human illusions was that they crumbled, they withered away. It was a long and wearisome process, like a toothache reaching far into the soul…”; “The self-doubt of the young is nothing compared to the self-doubt of the old.

As a novel, however, The Noise of Time is acutely disappointing. The crushing of the individual under the ostensibly-communist, actually-totalitarian post-1930s Soviet (and post-1950s Eastern European) regimes has been a heavily written subject, from numerous angles. Kundera has written about the regimes’ attempts to control art and music (The Joke), Danilo Kis has written about individual moral degradation (A Tomb for Boris Davidovich), Koestler has written about the horrors of surveillance and interrogation (Darkness at Noon), and there are many more. Reading The Noise of Time, one feels that this is ground that has been covered many times over, and by writers who had access to a more unmediated set of experiences than Barnes.

This issue might have been mitigated had Shostakovich’s character been at the front and centre of the novel. However, Shostakovich himself is painted in generic colours, a placeholder for the ordinary individual whose none-too strong character and none-too courageous heart wilts underneath Stalinism. Unlike Colm Toibin’s Henry James in The Master, for instance, who is utterly unique, Barnes’ Shostakovich is almost an allegory.

Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself  combines science fiction, Kantian “categories”, time travel, and a bewildering variety of stylistic variations (including one very successful one after James Joyce) in a heady mixture. I’ve never read anything quite like it. Roberts’ premise – that time and space are categories that structure and mediate our perceptions of the world, but can also be transcended – is a remarkably complex and difficult one to pull of in an actual science fiction novel, but he manages it in a quite virtuoso manner. The only downside to that is, that at times, the book is a little… difficult!

In a similar vein, Cixxin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem takes another fairly complex concept (i.e., the three-body problem!), and constructs an absolutely thrilling science fiction novel out of it. Friends have been recommending Liu to me for a couple of years now – and it was certainly worth all the hype. A novel about first contact (but not quite), The Three-Body Problem reads like old-school SF – James Blish’s Cities in Flight comes immediately to mind –  in its sense of wonder, of space, of the most haunting of questions; but it simultaneously avoids the blunders of old-school SF (the white-male-coloniser-centric worldview – it’s set in China, for a start, and has at least two female protagonists).

 

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Filed under Adam Roberts, Cixxin Liu, Inoue, Japan, Julian Barnes

Mist over the marches: Kazio Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant’

“For in this community, the past was rarely discussed. I do not mean that it was taboo. I mean that it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes. It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past – even the recent one.”

A generation after King Arthur’s death, an uneasy calm hangs over South Britain. Saxon and Briton, once implacable foes, now live together in relative peace. But all is not well. Ogres prowl the edge of the village stockades, making daring raids to carry off unwatched children. Briton soldiers roam the countryside, lying in wait for a Saxon warrior on a quest. High up in a mountain fastness, monks use an old torture device to expose their bodies to the beaks and talons of wild birds, in expiation for some nameless, horrible crime. A mist of forgetfulness, arising from the breath of the dragon Querig, which clouds the people’s minds with uncertainty and leaves only the vaguest remembrance of things past, lies heavily upon the land. Boatmen wait to ferry old couples to the island of afterlife, charged with separating them forever unless they can recall their most cherished memories, even through the mist. And Sir Gawain, long ago of King Arthur’s court, now a feeble, aged knight, waits to carry out his old command to slay the dragon and lift the mist of forgetfulness, once and for all.

In this strained climate, Axl and Beatrice, an old couple, decide to leave their village to pay a visit to their son, whom they have not seen in years. The mist has robbed them of their memory of why and when he left them; they remember only that he lives in a village a little way away. On their path, circumstances ensure that they fall in with Wistan, a Saxon warrior who (like Sir Gawain) has been charged with destroying the dragon Querig, to break the mist; and Edwin, a Saxon boy suffering from a dragon bite, who Wistan believes will lead them to Querig’s lair. And before long, they meet Sir Gawain himself. As the journey progresses, and slivers of memory, of their own torn and conflicted pasts, begin to return to Axl and Beatrice, the quest for their son gradually becomes a quest, with Wistan, to lift the mist and find answers to the questions that they cannot still articulate.

Kazio Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is set in the Britain of the Grail Cycle, a mystical land peopled with knights-errant, quarrelsome kings, boatmen to the afterlife, ogres, pixies, and of course, the titular “buried giant”, a dragon. It involves duels, battles, run-ins with ogres and other monstrous beasts, daring subterranean escapes, and an overarching quest that unifies the diverse characters and the divergent narrative strands. On the basis of these well-worn tropes, one might at first blush place The Buried Giant within the canon of high/romance fantasy, located in the ambiguous half-historical, half-imaginary time and space that is a staple feature of the novels of Guy Gavriel Kay, or even Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber.

Unsurprisingly, though, The Buried Giant resists any such easy classification. This is perhaps because Ishiguro’s choice of genre is – in my opinion – instrumental. An writer who has won critical acclaim for novels such as The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World, and Never Let Me Go has chosen the Arthurian romance as the framework for his latest novel not because of the narrative possibilities that such a world (with its established conventions, traditions and folklore) would allow him, but because it serves as a vehicle for a deeper set of political and moral arguments (or perspectives) that he wishes to express.

How does this play out in The Buried Giant? To start with, the novel is much more strongly allegorical than most fantasy writing. Ever since Tolkien expressed his “cordial dislike” for allegory, there has been a circumspection about allowing fantasy to collapse into a morality tale. In The Buried Giant, however, the moral question is categorically framed almost from the very beginning, and is reiterated whenever the fantastic elements of the story threaten to take over. For instance, immediately after discovering their torture/expiation device, one of the moments of high suspense and drama in the novel, Wistan asks the monks, “is your Christian god one to be bribed so easily with self-inflicted pain and a few prayers?” Instances like these abound. Even as Sir Gawain hacks at a monster, or as pixies attack a rowboat in the middle of the river, the question remains foregrounded: can peace only be bought by an enforced forgetfulness of past crimes? 

The allegorical focus of the novel also ensures that a number of the characters remain dimly impressionistic, at times even appearing to be caricatures. Sir Gawain’s delightfully quixotic potential is never quite realised, Wistan fights valiantly but fails to free himself from the shackles of his chivalric knighthood, and Edwin, after a promising start, seems to simply fade away into a narrative shadow. The twin exceptions (or perhaps it should be called a single exception) are Axl and Beatrice, whose relationship is portrayed with great depth and sensitivity, and by the end of the novel, has left its pages and lodged itself firmly in the reader’s mind. Perhaps The Buried Giant is better read not as an Arthurian allegory about the connections between violence, collective and individual memory, but as an exploration about the “black shadows [that] make part of the whole” (p. 343) of any relationship (with an incidental, fantastic backdrop).

Such a reading is reflected in the style of the novel, which proceeds in a slow, meandering and unhurried way, much like Axl and Beatrice’s slow progress through the countryside, and their conversations with each other. Dialogue predominates over action; and even action takes its own, leisurely time. The duels are described as though they are being fought in slow motion, and the battles have an unreal, dreamlike quality about them. Much like The Remains of the Day, the novel’s pace is determined from the perspective of its protagonist(s). In another way, this reflects how Ishiguro’s use of the genre is partial at best: it is the rare fantasy novel where the protagonists are, ultimately, passive spectators to most of the pivotal events, whose own quest recedes into irrelevance midway through the novel, and whose personal journey – ultimately – comes entirely apart from the core quest.

Questions about the role of memory and forgetting in shaping identity and conflict have been explored before, in fantasy. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana is an outstanding example, but perhaps comparisons with Howard Jacobson’s are most apposite. Like Jacobson, Ishiguro is working with a genre that he is unfamiliar with; like Jacobson, he is trying to navigate the tricky terrain of personal and collective memory at the same time; like Jacobson, there are times when the story seems to be subordinate to a broader politico-moral claim. And in my opinion, like Jacobson, he succeeds – but only partially.

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Filed under Kazio Ishiguro, Speculative Fiction