Friday, October 26, 2007

On historical fantasists

At the Guardian, Ursula K. LeGuin offers some interesting thoughts concerning the latest installment (a prequel) of Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori (I have liked these books very much indeed, only would wish for a little less history and a little more magic--I found the first of the sequence the most compelling):
In what was to me the most vivid moment of the book, a man sees his breath make a little cloud of white in an unheated room in winter. Then, noticing another such faint cloud nearby, he realises that an invisible person is in the room with him. This is fine. It makes the leap from the ordinary to the uncanny with the simple accuracy of observation that is, paradoxically, essential to fantasy.

Much of the story, however, glides past without such acute immediacy. The writing is clear but the effect is a little obsessive, a little dreamlike - as when one is not quite fully awake, watching things happen through the residue of heavy sleep. Everything is somehow remote, even dreadful scenes of torture and battle, even beautifully described landscapes with all the scents and colours of the season.

This distance is not caused by the 13th-century Japanese setting, for films and stories have transported me to that far realm with no sense at all of unreality - rather with a terrific sense of living presence. They were, however, Japanese films and stories, or else translations and retellings by Lafcadio Hearn. I am reluctantly forced to consider that Lian Hearn's unmistakably great knowledge of the period, her passion for all things Japanese, her conscious repudiation of literary "colonialism," her avoidance of cultural co-optation by setting her tales in a nonexistent corner of Japan, do not entirely prevent her inventions from being essentially bookish - existing at one remove. Though thoroughly enjoyable, they never quite convinced me. I was always conscious that it was "just a story".

This may be a real element of their popularity. Why not? A great many of us are happy to be told a story with a vast cast of characters, boiling over with wickedness, nobility, violence, vengeance, courage, failure, sexual passion, romantic love, births, deaths, tragedies and victories, held together through hundreds of pages by a well-built plot, with a definite bias towards the good guys: the kind of novel Dumas set the pattern for, the kind of novel you aren't asked to believe. Dumas wasn't trying to do what Stendhal or Tolstoy did with the historical novel. He was a historical fantasist; and perhaps that is the best description of Hearn.

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