Standout Literary Fiction

These are the NamesMy 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.

Childhood of Jesus

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.

Arthurian legendLike 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.

Buried Giant

Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

9780571315048This is only my second Kazuo Ishiguro book following on from Never Let Me Go. For me, coming off a novel about cloning, I had no expectations about where he would go next. Much has been made about this novel being a “departure” for Ishiguro but I would argue that he has gone back to something far more traditional.

This novel is seeped in myth and legend. Ogre’s are referred to and a strange spell seems to hang over the land. There are mysterious warriors and a renowned Knight of the Roundtable. There are superstitions and folklore to be obeyed and to be wary of. And there’s a journey a couple must embark upon…. (Psst…and there’s a dragon).

We meet the main characters of the novel, Axl and Beatrice, as they go about their daily lives in their village. The narration of the story is at first quite unsettling but you get used to it as the novel progresses. Events are told in a kind of immediate past tense. Rather than the traditional past tense of a story being told after a significant amount of time has lapsed everything is told almost in the direct afterwards of the events occurring.

I wouldn’t call this a fantasy novel, instead this is a novel about legends. The mythical creatures referred to are more often than not off page. Which means that their existences is always questionable. And when they do finally appear on the page there is still sufficient question marks around them.

When you get down to the nuts and bolts of this story it is the classic journey. A journey into a great unknown. A journey into memory and love. It is a post-Arthurian tale that is perfectly apt for this post-9/11 world where the peace and harmony has been built on tenuous foundations. Don’t get caught up in the debate about whether this is a departure or a fantasy. This is classic storytelling told by a complete master.

Buy the book here…