Back to Isfahan
Richard Lloyd Parry
- A Good Place to Die by James Buchan
Harvill, 343 pp, £10.99, September 1999, ISBN 1 86046 648 6
Early on in his new novel, James Buchan employs an image of which he is evidently fond: that of two mirrors placed face to face, and the unique and disconcerting effect which they produce, of reflections endlessly reflected in reflections. The same mirrors turned up in Frozen Desire, Buchan’s autobiographical meditation on the meaning of money, where they served as a symbol of financial investment and the silent accumulation of compound interest. In A Good Place to Die, they describe the state of mind of its narrator, a young Englishman named John Pitt, as he stares into an antique photograph, straining to make out words contained in a frame depicted within it. ‘I am drawn into that silver frame within a frame,’ John reports, ‘am cast back and forth between them and between the centuries, in an infinite and darkling enfilade as when two mirrors are placed to face one another. In my vertigo, the writing is forever trembling on the lip of sense. I feel it struggle to take form ... and fly at me; and yet there is something hopeless about the writing, left-handed, disconsolate, dead, forgotten.’
Such sensations – of fascination and frustration, of struggling for sense and wholeness, and of meaning glimpsed only to dip out of sight – will be familiar to all readers of Buchan’s fiction, whether or not they count themselves among his admirers. His five previous novels have received superlative praise and literary prizes; he has been ranked among the very best novelists of his time and place. By and large, his detractors express bafflement rather than outright dismissiveness, but all agree that Buchan is, by the prevailing standards of literary fiction, a demanding and unconventional novelist – evasive, elliptical, simultaneously garrulous and laconic, explicit and vague. He writes the kind of books which are impossible to summarise in a jacket blurb; the terms his publishers tend to use (political spy thriller; ‘tender’ love story) must have enticed and confounded a good number of casual readers. To admirers he ‘makes the reader work’; the rest simply regard him as hard work. Buchan’s difficulty is the key to any judgment about his writing, and it is characteristically displayed in A Good Place to Die.
This isn’t immediately obvious and, for the first half of the book, the blurb writer appears to have got it more or less right. It is 1974 and John Pitt, the narrator, is an 18-year-old on his first journey out of Britain. After hitch-hiking through Europe and Turkey, he finds himself in pre-revolutionary Iran, a country of ‘light, sweets, roasting kebabs, portraits of the Shah in splendour, wolf-whistles and long-winded jokes’. A haircut and a forged degree certificate are all he needs to find a job as an English teacher in the city of Isfahan. John is bright, cocky, lonely and broke and, like many teenagers on their first encounter with Abroad, he is pre-emptively nostalgic, consciously harvesting experiences for future enjoyment. ‘I sensed that I was a tough guy,’ he says, ‘and that the sights and sounds and tastes and smells of Isfahan, that now meant nothing to me, would years from now convey the most intense sensations ... it would gain its meaning for me only in its telling, back home, in my house, when I had one, before an audience of imaginary Britishers.’