The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Damn, I knew I should have written this review, as I’d intended, yesterday.

Many years ago I read Ishiguro’s first two books, A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World (the second I remember quite liking), but I’ve read nothing since; meaning my reading of him coincides with him being relatively obscure (this edition claims two of his novels sold over a million copies, which I find difficult to believe, but shows the value of having a film made out of your book). Nonetheless, I’ve always had in mind that he’s one of our best writers – his contribution to one of those Granta anthologies of best young British writers seemed far superior to all the others – and yet, I’ve not been inclined to read anything more by him; because frankly it’s not much of an accolade these days, to be the best writer in these lands.

The Buried Giant on the face of it sounded quite interesting – largely I guess, because he’d set it in Dark Age England, which is an area in which I’ve been recently immersing myself; plus I also had my SF project in mind (it has a quote from Neil Gaiman on the back cover!),

The plot: an old couple, who have difficulty trying to remember the past, decide to leave the warren in which they live to visit their son – though they don’t really remember where he is. On their way they meet a variety of people and weird creatures. The England through which they travel is divided in an uneasy peace between the Britons and the Saxons. In fact, no one can seem to remember the past, because it has become lost in a persistent mist, which is the creation of a dragon living up a mountain. The couple’s journey, along with those they take up travelling with, turns into a quest to slay this dragon and bring back these memories; – but, as we increasingly learn, maybe they don’t want to remember the past.

So what’s it all about really? A meditation, no doubt, on whether it’s better to bury the past, or revisit it – the couple, after all, are happy because they cannot remember events which before have come between them; the population of England are at peace because they don’t recollect past grievances and atrocities. I’d assumed for a long time the dragon too was a metaphor; but no, there really is a dragon. There isn’t a giant though; he is a metaphor; but there are ogres (who reminded me somewhat of the troubling Manga series Attack on Titan).

It’s more thoughtful than the other SF I have read, has better human characters, and yet is at the same time more boring. I wouldn’t say that I struggled to read it (maybe I did, at two-thirds of the way through, have to press myself to go on), but it wasn’t exactly a compelling read. Ishiguro writes in a mannered style; – particularly I found, perhaps more so as the novel went on, the characters’ speech – especially the old couple – is mannered; partly no doubt as an attempt to evoke a different time, or their age; but increasingly I felt annoying (all Ishiguro’s characters in all his books, I suspect, possess this same restraint – I always imagine Ishiguro has the worst of two worlds, the restraint if the British crossed with the restraint of the Japanese). On the whole I wasn’t convinced of the novel’s ultimate worth; it seemed an empty, unsatisfying read; and I can’t see I’ll be reading anything further of his in a hurry; – or any English literary fiction.

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Non-Stop, by Brian Aldiss

Non-Stop is what I’d term perfunctory SF. For a start it’s 240 pages and I read it in a single evening. – So it’s gripping, yes? – Or perhaps it requires no particular application of mind. (The next SF book I’ve been reading, in contrast, had been remarkably slow-going. We can maybe examine the reasons more in that future review).

It has a very familiar SF plot: a group of people, who’ve spent their lives living within an enclosed society, decide against the rules of that society to go “outside” and discover the reality of the world, which is no doubt quite different to what they conceived. We can immediately think of other examples: Arthur C Clarke’s The City and The Stars, for one; also, the next but one book I’m reading; – I’m sure there are plenty of others. – It’s a slight variation on that other SF template: a group of people discover a world different from their own and wander about in it. – There’s some inherently pleasing, I find, in both these stories.

This is the kind of book where I’m tentative about giving away anything of the plot; and that makes it kind of difficult to say anything about it in concrete terms, since it is almost entirely plot-driven; so I shall be very abstract. The events of this novel seem very contrived; a lot of things happen at the same time so that they can be included in the novel and so that the novel can reach a satisfactory conclusion. It also seemed highly unlikely to me that nobody for so many years ever learnt the things that were learned during the short duration of this novel; the entire world they lived in cannot have been very large, since they do not take that long to cross it, so it seems unlikely that nobody for generations has bothered travelling round it. Once again, psychic powers were developed in the novel, though on this occasion rats were channeling them through other animals – rabbits, for instance – and there were some psychic moths. Also, I’d personally have expected they’d have imposed a much more strict quarantine. If you want to understand much of this, you’d probably have to read it.

I guess why I’m calling it perfunctory SF is that it just uses an SF template, and then moves its characters around in it, but it never particular seeks anything deeper than this. It’s just an adventure story.

Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon is a quite different SF book to anything else I’ve read so far, I think in that it’s entirely contemporary (written in the 1960s) except for the single SF conceit at its heart; and also that its concern is largely with human psychology.

The SF conceit here is that a new operation has been developed which can make people more intelligent. This technique has been tried on mice, and now it is being trialled on the first human being, a man called Charlie who has what we would now term learning difficulties.

As part of the experiment, Charlie keeps a diary – which forms our novel. He starts off barely able to write; but as the treatment goes on, this improves. – Straightaway I see the potential for this in terms of novelistic form and style: we start off something akin to the first part of As I Lay Dying, and end up with him writing like Proust, or I don’t know, Martin Heideigger; – but sadly Daniel Keyes doesn’t take it that far, contenting himself after the first part with the standard simple English of most novels.

Charlie was ignorantly happy in his life before the experiment, but as he develops he begins to see a) that the people he thought were his friends back then were mocking him; and b) now that he’s actually more intelligent than everyone else, he still can’t really relate to people. Also, his emotional development doesn’t mirror his intellectual development – although this is an area again which I feel has much greater possibilities than those explored in the novel. Although it’s a broad statement, I’ve always felt there’s a gulf between SF writers and literary writers in their human understanding; and I sense with this novel, issues in human development are not wholly thought through. That he reads say Dostoevsky is linked to his intellectual development; but novels, it seems to me, are not really intellectual – there are much more to do with your understanding of society and your own emotions; and if these areas of his life are underdeveloped, what will he find of worth in Dostoevsky? See also Frankenstein no doubt (doesn’t the monster read Paradise Lost?), which this novel at times resembles.

There seemed a lot of other problems with this novel too: the attitude of the scientists towards Charlie, and the way they talk about him even when present, seemed to my mind unlikely (unless one were to suppose scientists too entirely without a sense of human understanding), and largely just a plot trigger; and the inherent problem of portraying someone whose intellectual capacity is way beyond any other human was not, I felt, sufficiently avoided by the author (hard, I suppose, in a first person narrative). Also, the flash-backs to his former life I began to find tedious; but for all this in general I found it an interesting book.

The Forever War, by Jon Haldeman

I’m going to be doing a series on SF novels, of which this is the first. A lot of it will be taken from Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series.

The Forever War is about a war between Earth and the Taurians, after both races discover wormholes in space which allow them to travel vast distances. In reality, though, it’s about the Vietnam War, in which Joe Haldeman took part.

The SF conceit of this novel is that the relativity involved in travelling vast distances means that time passes differently for some combatants than others, meaning that when a spaceship turns up for a battle, it has no idea whether its opponents might have developed its weapons technology beyond anything it might be able to cope with. Also, the soldiers have their lives essentially ruined by orders from above which might mean everyone they knew will have died by the time they return from a mission.

I say all this, but actually the novel doesn’t explore these ideas too much. It probably in fact has more to say about how humans can cope with the g-force involved in sudden evasive manoevres in space. But mostly it’s just a story of one man living through this experience, at the whim of his duplicitous superiors. The introduction by Adam Roberts claims it’s not the SF elements as much as the human character of the narrator which makes the novel; I remain uncertain, though I did find it enjoyable.

One SF trait I find generally annoying which this book shares is that certain humans are shown as having undeveloped psychic powers. Philip K Dick is another one who likes this trope (prior to the series I read Martian Time-Slip, where again such characters appear). I find this all to go against a fundamental grain I expect in SF, which is that it should have nothing whatsoever to do with religion and superstitious nonsense (I fear I’ll be coming back to this idea again and again). We don’t have latent psychic powers; people who claim they do are charlatans. (Technology to give us psychic powers, on the other hand, is perfectly allowable).

Juan the Landless, by Juan Goytisolo

I didn’t finished Juan the Landless. I got about two-thirds of the way through, but found it by that time such a chore to read, that I found that – like say with Joyce’s Ulysses or Kafka’s The Trial – the only reason I could give to continue to the end would be at least to say I had read it.

Goytisolo died this year, and in one of the obituaries I read, it was remarked that his body of work demonstrated an astonishing variety. Now it is true, the author of this piece had read a lot more of his earlier work than I; I have only read in this respect his Marks of Identity, which is his emergence from this period (I’m not sure much else pre-Marks of Identity is published in English); but on the contrary, my experience of Goytisolo – in particular contrast to Vallé-Inclán, for instance – is that he’s one of those writers all of whose books are exactly the same; and not merely that, my experience of reading them too is exactly the same. For I always start out swiftly reading the first 50-70 pages, thinking it all marvellous; and then I put the book aside, and when I pick it up again, I’ve lost the thread, and the whole thing becomes just the most terrible struggle.

Juan the Landless is the third in a loose trilogy which starts with Marks of Identity, and seems to presage Goytisolo’s entire later style where he just rants about vaguely connected stuff to the reader and calls that a novel. There’s usually a character and a plot in there somewhere, but they’re often difficult to locate or understand. These rants tend to consist of a denunciation of Spain, capitalism and western society in general, and an embracing of Islam and homosexuality (two things which in Goytisolo’s mind seem to go together). Sometimes this ranting, and the mad ideas accompanying it, is enjoyable: I liked the piece in this book, for instance, where tourists come to Spain not to watch bull-fights but heretics being burnt. But after a bit it, I find, it all gets too much.

I also read earlier in the year Landscapes After The Battle, about a quartier of Paris which is in the process of becoming an Islamic state, for which the above description of Juan the Landless would also suffice.

The Wandering Unicorn, by Manuel Mujica Lainez

If the last novel I reviewed was a typical Latin American novel written by a European, this is a European novel written by a Latin American (an Argentinian). In fact, I can’t think of a Latin American novel I’ve read which is as untypically Latin American, or has as little interest in Latin American themes or the Latin American experience. But saying it is a European novel is also wide of the mark. The work I’m reading currently which it has most in common with is that pre-Don Quixote medieval saga, Tirant lo Blanc. For Mujica Lainez’s book is more or less a faux-medieval romance crossed with the novel.

My edition has an introduction by Jorge Luis Borges in which he denounces the realistic novel, the psychological novel and the avant-garde (“the arduous experiments of Joyce”), and suggests that future generations will return to novels of adventure – he mentions Stevenson, Hugo and – Ariosto. I understand where Borges is coming from; it is what he claims throughout his writings, even if his own fictions seem to be mere scholarly reflection on the thing rather than the thing itself; and it is in the list of things he admires, including this novel.

So what’s it about: – it’s about a fairy Melusine and her love for a knight called Aiol. Much of its early part is spent in France, as the characters concern themselves with knightly matters and jousts, before everyone sets off for the Holy Land to fight Saladin. (Which is, of course, pretty much the same plot as Tirant lo Blanc – except in the latter book the early action is largely relocated to England). The fairy is immortal and is telling the story from the present day, recalling these medieval events from her past, which perhaps justifies the novelistic encroachments into an otherwise medieval pastiche (not, of course, that it needs any such justification). For on saying it’s a medieval novel, it also comes as no surprise that it was written in the 1960s. Courtly love is portrayed much in the manner of free love, which I have an idea it was not; – it’s portrayed as a suspect challenge to the prevalent moral orthodoxy; – but, on the other hand, I feel a bit more tentative about my concept of courtly love after reading this, since Mujica Lainez demonstrates a familiarity with, in particular, troubadour poetry which I do not have. Nonetheless I still sense there was something fundamentally illicit about adultery in medieval courtly circles which possibly doesn’t come across in Mujica Lainez.

Anyhow, it’s good fun; but not, pace Borges, I feel, of any great significance [he says, as he plans his own faux-medieval works].

Tyrant Banderas, by Ramón del Valle-Inclán

It’s traditional by now to read something by Ramón del Valle-Inclán for Spanish Literature Month – though it’s a tradition which might have to end soon, because I’m not sure there’s all that much else in English. As we (no doubt) noted last year, his books vary widely in style, and indeed, in content in a way that most authors’ don’t. This novel is a far from the Sonatas novellas depicting the leisured lives and loves of aristocrats. Instead it is your typical – indeed, archetypal, since it was published in the 1920s(?) – Latin American dictatorship novel; although Valle-Inclán was himself of course a Spaniard and is at least in part displacing the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera to that other continent.

Tyrant Banderas seems to have been particularly influential on Miguel Angel Asturias’ The President, whose basic structure and plot mimic it. A dictator rules a South American country and our narrative drifts from person to person – though largely, it is true, remaining in the upper echelons of government – giving as it does so a panorama of the country, and a multi-sided view of the dictator. Banderas is himself an interesting character – perhaps more so than leaders from other South American dictator novels – since although he may kill and oppress, even as he does so, he remains concerned to distance himself from those activities, and particularly to maintain a respected position in the opinion of the wider world.

Like Asturias’ The President, the novel also follows the fortunes of a politician who falls foul of the dictator and goes over to the revolution; though the outcome in this case is certainly less depressing, since Banderas turns out ultimately to have a far less secure position from which to act; – one feels maybe Asturias – and other later Latin American writers – are more inured to the idea of dictatorship being a permanent form of government, from which one can see no forthcoming release. Valle-Inclán does share too with Asturias a certain unflinching pitilessness – an interest in the grotesque – which we remember well from the, at times, shocking plays of his we read last year: – there is a scene in this, for instance, where a baby, after his mother is taken away by the secret police and he is left on his own, is eaten by pigs.