My standout literary fiction of the year so far is Dutch author Tommy Wieringa’s These Are the Names (Scribe) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (Faber & Faber). Both these writers have been awarded for previous works and should have similar success with these books.
The novels are masterfully written, with myth-like, nebulous settings and a wandering quest. Both are seeped in classic literature: The Buried Giant in Arthurian legend and These Are the Names in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament.
These Are the Names is a dual narrative about police commissioner, Pontus Beg, who seeks out his Jewish heritage, and a group of exiles, who perhaps emulate the ambiguity of JM Coetzee’s refugees in The Childhood of Jesus before they reach safety.
Beg is doled out sexual favours by his housekeeper and, surprisingly for a man who regards himself as restrained, shows violence towards prisoners. His police force operates on bribes. Beg lives in Michailopol, which has experienced nuclear rain from atomic testing and a ‘lager’ where thousands of, mainly, Jewish prisoners have been executed.
The refugees travel across the sand like the Exodus of the Jews. There are a number of men, including the poacher, the tall man and the Ethiopian; a woman; and a boy who was judged most fit to travel by his family. He becomes hardened but could be seen as a ‘little Moses’. The men can be violent, although the Christian Ethiopian saves the tall man from death. They endure a long truck ride, pass through a deserted village, exhaust the supplies of an old woman and cross a border. They are not a cohesive group and degenerate into corpse-robbers. Finally they turn on one of their group.
Like some who have sought asylum in Australia in recent times, they were told to destroy their papers so that they have no compromising identity.
Like Wieringa’s refugee boy, Ishiguro’s Edwin, the boy bitten by a mythical creature and ostracised by his village in The Buried Giant, may also be the precursor of a new land and future. Edwin is taken under the care and tutorage of the knight, Wistan, as they travel with an old man and woman who, like many of Ishiguro’s characters, have an ambiguous identity. They also encounter Sir Gawain in their quest to find memory, home and family and slay the dragon.
The ideas in these novels are provocative. Lovers of literary fiction should relish them both and can hear more from Tommy Wieringa, who is coming to the SWF next month and will also be visiting Brisbane.