These two novels take us back in time; the first to a period after the Romans have left Britain, when the Vikings are raiding from Scandinavia and before the Norman invasion; and the second to a Calcutta of the 1950s. Both are about love, the first about marital love between an elderly couple Axl and Beatrice, and the second about Cupid&’s first arrows.
The Buried Giant is Ishiguro&’s seventh novel and his first for 10 years. He does not attain the heights of his The Remains of the Day and neither the setting nor the plot-line entirely convince, comprising derivatives of Beowulf, Tolkien, Don Quixote, Homer, CS Lewis and the Arthurian legend. In this fantasy literature, the author&’s theme of memory is at full play. Axl and Beatrice are Britons who journey in search of their son, who may or may not exist, and whom they can hardly remember. Lack of memory is something that afflicts all the characters, due to a ‘mist’ propagated by a she-dragon called Querig.
This is the time of ogres, giants and malevolent pixies. On their journey, the couple encounter many life-threatening dangers, from which they are saved by Winstan, a Saxon warrior, and Gawain, a British knight and survivor of Arthur&’s Round Table. Winstan eventually kills Querig, and Gawain as well, and in the process removes the “mist” that has so far prevented the desire for punishment and revenge between the Saxons and Britons and kept England in an uneasy peace. The lifting of the ‘mist’ also brings back painful memories of marital rifts between Axl and Beatrice who are doomed to be obliged to part company for ever.
Sanjeev Gupta is the pseudonym of Arabinda Ray, a senior corporate executive and management expert. The novel&’s backdrop is 1950s Calcutta and the city and ambience are very different from today. The central character is Arani “Ronnie” Chaudhuri, a young man just joined a British-owned paint company, who is bent on seeking love, which he has experienced for the first time, and with unsuccessful results, at age 18. He is excessively romantic and idealistic; he looks for love in every woman he encounters. So in essence this is a love story; that of Arani and his several female friends who fail to reciprocate. We have the eternal triangle, and other polygons; the first drink, the first dance, the first kiss. Arani and some of his peer-group are in pursuit of women with money and influence who could advance their careers and life-styles. The road-blocks that parents placed in the way of such adventurers appear wholly justified.
Thus Arani is rejected at times by the woman proposed to, sometimes by her parent. There is nothing revealed about Arani&’s background or parents or siblings, except the death of his mother. He comes across as self-absorbed and not entirely wholesome, but we are informed at various times that he has interest in chemistry, philosophy, fiction, metaphysics and poetry. Young men of that era were clearly polymaths compared to the callow specimens of today. Arani encounters his true love more than half way through the book, but she becomes an elusive figure, and Arani meets her only thrice in the text, the last occasion when he is a bachelor over 40 and she is married to someone else.
The story would mean much to persons familiar with that period; many of the incidents and the demotic language used seem to be based on actual recollection. Neo-Victorian attitudes prevail among all the characters, with restraints, especially on women, and formalities happily unknown today. Gossip is rife, so is match-making, and everyone is involved in everyone else&’s private life. With a multitude of characters entering and departing the narrative, it is hard to establish a point of view, especially when many of them are prone to introspections and ruminations, self-doubt and self-recrimination. A consistent first person narrative would have served the author better.
Sixty years is a long time for a typescript to lie unattended and there are risks in tardy publication. The author&’s design is to acquaint us with the aspirations, foibles and follies of the gilded youth of that long-vanished period of Calcutta&’s high society. In that, he has fully succeeded.
the reviewer is India&’s former Foreign Secretary