Monday, March 02, 2015

Neil Gaiman on Kazuo Ishiguro's Buried Giant

Illustration by Peter Sis

To my surprise - because I think of him as writer, not as literary critic - Neil Gaiman has reviewed Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel, The Buried Giant, and he did so in the New York Times (February 25, 2015). For now, I'm more interested in what Gaiman says about writing than about Ishiguro's story, so I'll focus on Gaiman's thoughts on writing:
Fantasy is a tool of the storyteller. It is a way of talking about things that are not, and cannot be, literally true. It is a way of making our metaphors concrete, and it shades into myth in one direction, allegory in another. Once, many years ago, a French translator decided that my novel "Stardust" was an allegory, based on and around John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim’s Progress" (it wasn't), and somewhat loosely translated the book with footnotes to that effect. This has left me a little shy of talking about allegory, and very shy of ever mentioning "The Pilgrim's Progress."
Perhaps I can use some of Gaiman's insights on fantasy's relation to myth and allegory the next time I'm invited to an international conference on storytelling. I also like his remark about fantasy being "a way of making our metaphors concrete," a point particularly worth some exploration and explication. As an aside concerning Bunyan's famous allegory, Pilgrim's Progress, allow me to note that I recently helped my wife translate a Korean fantasy story by the nationalist Korean writer Sin Chae-ho (1880-1936), titled Dream Sky (1916), and I described Sin's story - set in 1907 (three years before Japan colonized Korea) - as follows:
Sin Chae-ho's nationalist novella Dream Sky, written in 1916, reads like a cross between The Apocalypse of St. John and Pilgrim's Progress. The first several lines depict the protagonist Hannom seeing a divine figure revealed in the heavens who announces the necessity of struggling for national survival. Battles in the sky follow and reflect battles on earth. Hannom, however, is called on not merely to observe and record, but also to join in a celestial battle against Japanese invaders. Yet, he encounters various tests and temptations along the way that distract him from his goal of reaching the battle, and that teach him of his own weaknesses and shortcomings. (Sin Chae-ho, Dream Sky, 1916, pages 3-4)
I think I had more cause to connect Sin's story to Bunyan's (also to St. John's), though perhaps I was making an error of judgement similar to that of the French translator. But back to Gaiman on writing:
Kazuo Ishiguro is a remarkable novelist, both for the quality of his work - because his novels share a careful, precise approach to language and to character - and because he does not ever write the same novel, or even the same type of novel, twice. In "The Buried Giant," his seventh and latest, he begins with clear, unhurried, unfussy language to describe the England of some 1,500 years ago, in a novel as well crafted as it is odd.
The words "careful, precise approach to language" and "clear, unhurried, unfussy language" sound like praise to my ears. Gaiman goes on to talk about the book itself, but in a way that reveals still more about his own views on writing:
"The Buried Giant" is a melancholy book, and the mist that breathes through it is a melancholic mist. The narrative tone is dreamlike and measured. There are adventures, sword fights, betrayals, armies, cunning stratagems and monsters killed, but these things are told distantly, without the book's pulse ever beating faster. They are described unflinchingly, precisely, sometimes poetically. Enemies are slain, but the deaths are never triumphant. A culmination of a planned trap for a troop of soldiers, worthy of a whodunit, is described in retrospect, once we already know what must have happened. Stories drift toward us in the narrative like figures in the mist, and then are gone. The excitements that the book would deliver were this a more formulaic or crowd-pleasing novel are, here, when they appear, not exciting, perhaps because they would be young people's adventures, and this is, at its heart, a book about two [old] people who are now past all adventure . . . . Fantasy and historical fiction and myth here run together with the Matter of Britain, in a novel that's easy to admire, to respect and to enjoy, but difficult to love. Still, "The Buried Giant" does what important books do: It remains in the mind long after it has been read, refusing to leave, forcing one to turn it over and over. On a second reading, and on a third, its characters and events and motives are easier to understand, but even so, it guards its secrets and its world close.

Ishiguro is not afraid to tackle huge, personal themes, nor to use myths, history and the fantastic as the tools to do it. "The Buried Giant" is an exceptional novel, and I suspect my inability to fall in love with it, much as I wanted to, came from my conviction that there was an allegory waiting like an ogre in the mist, telling us that no matter how well we love, no matter how deeply, we will always be fallible and human . . .
That expression "Matter of Britain" reveals that Gaiman is familiar with scholarly discourse on medieval Arthurian romance writing, which further tells me that I ought not be surprised that he would be chosen to review this book by Ishiguro. Gaiman admires Ishiguro's story, but worries that this fantasy novel might hide an allegory, which makes the story unlovable, at least for Gaiman. I seem to recall that Gaiman loved the Narnia stories as a child, but realized - as he grew older - that the stories were Christian allegory, which bothered him for the pretense at being one thing but actually being another, a kind of deception, to his mind. Or am I thinking of a character in a Gaiman story? Speaking of Gaiman's writing, he has a new book out, the story collection Trigger Warning.

I should note that my own story, The Bottomless Bottle of Beer, borrows a Shoggath's Old Peculiar from Gaiman - and is not an allegory!

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At 9:55 AM, Anonymous Sperwer said...

So it's autobiographical! I knew it! The national Enquirer expose is in the works. Time to show up @ Craftworks with Woland and his entourage, especially Hella - can i play Behemoth, or come as Sperwer? - create the myth and cash in!

At 10:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hmmm . . . maybe the story should be allegorical.

But if it's my autobiography, you'd fit the Koroviev character better - tall and witty.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff, CPH here. Just finished this, magnificent. I went ahead and read Gaiman's, and Kakutani's, NYT reviews, and all I can say is, Gaiman got it right. It's a sad and wondrous tale he's wrought here that'll defintely stick with your typical tired old happily married guy, I'll tell you what. My kid John was assigned "Remains of the Day" this year and declares it the best novel he's ever read, so I reckon I need to catch up on that (and I haven't even seen the movie, so I'm still clean!)--

At 1:28 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Pete, I'm reading the novel right now. (Well, 15 minutes ago, I was.)

Jeffery Hodges

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