Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

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The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro book cover
The Buried Giant (2015), Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in a decade, is a complex and allegorical mediaeval-style fantasy set in post-Roman Britain around the sixth century, which has as much to say about modern life as it does about the slaying of dragons. Across the fictional land, an unexplained fog hangs, which causes a kind of collective Alzheimer’s, with all memory being slowly lost to the mist. The novel’s main characters – Axl and Beatrice – are an ageing couple who set out from their small village to visit their long-departed son, who lives only a few villages away. With the war between Britons and Saxons not long finished, lands are not always hospitable and along the way the couple encounter a handful of major characters with whom they travel, some friendlier than others. There is a young boy, Edwin, who is cursed and seeking his lost mother; Wistan, a warrior who is honourable but dangerous and derives, surely, from Beowulf; and, finally, Sir Gawain, a famous if ageing knight of King Arthur’s court, here closer to Don Quixote than the fresh-faced knight of the famous story. In the haze of the mist, their stories mingle as, in classic quest story tradition, Axl and Beatrice face all manner of test, from negotiating difficult terrain and devious monks to fighting Querig, the dragon who has doomed their lands to the collective amnesia. All the while, they make their way towards their son, who lives, it transpires, on an island away from Axl and Beatrice’s own country. To reach it, they must claim passage with a boatman: strange and mythical men who, it is said, will only on rare occasions carry couples together to other lands, and only then if they are able to prove their devotion to each other. This is the final, defining test that Axl and Beatrice must face, no matter how heavily the odds are weighted against them.

The fog of collective amnesia that is slowly overtaking the inhabitants of Ishiguro’s world is an excellent conceit: the buried giant, more than Querig, refers to the memories deeply buried (or perhaps lost altogether), a mass forgetting that has allowed two peoples – Saxons and Britons – to find peace and reconciliation after a bloody war, just as, on a personal level, it has allowed Axl and Beatrice to be reunited after trouble in their own relationship. Within this giant allegory of a novel, this is the central and most powerful metaphor. It is reminiscent of Jose Saramago’s Blindness, in which a collective loss of sight amongst a city’s people is used as a metaphor for humanity’s failure to see even in clear daylight. Here, Ishiguro’s metaphor is as relevant to the reader as to his characters: if forgetting brings happiness, then how far ought we to excavate our own buried giants – the dark memories that dwell within us, unspoken for fear of their implications? And without memory, what of identity, individual or national? What holds the threads of life together if it is not memory? Without it, there is only an unending present.

This idea of truth hidden beneath the surface not only acts as a metaphor for the human relationship to memory but also to Ishiguro as a writer. No matter which genre he writes in, Ishiguro’s novels deal with life on the surface level, the meat of his works hidden deep beneath the words – The Buried Giant is no exception, although one might argue that in such an openly allegorical tale this fact is concealed less so than in some of his other works – and in this way The Buried Giant is almost a critical analysis of Ishiguro’s own attitude towards writing characters.

If the novel is about a way of living – about how relationships are formed and sustained, the trials that one must face in life and how they can be met with love, and the knowledge that not all is as it seems – then it is equally as much about death. The son that Axl and Beatrice seek has passed over to an island beyond their reach – they must persuade a boatman to carry them across the water to this isle – and the Mediaeval tradition, used by modern authors like Tolkien and Pullman, informs the reader that such a journey represents more than a simple crossing of water but a trip to the afterlife, a passing from this life to the next. In Ishiguro’s world, the boatmen who carry people from one isle to the next determine whether a couple are carried together or separately. It is a rare privilege for both to make the trip together, and Axl’s repeated anxiety about this journey throughout the novel is representative of the very human response to potential loss; the wrenching of a long loved one from one’s arms. As the novel progresses and the mist that engulfs the reader and the characters begins to lift (note, another subtle metaphor for the reading experience), the sense of existential dread that hangs about the novel begins to solidify into a very real, precise fear. In this way, Ishiguro creates an incredibly poignant journey that mirrors the experience of ageing with a partner and the creeping move towards the ultimate separation.

Ishiguro is always readable but although plain in its language, The Buried Giant describes a world that is full of classic mediaeval tropes – monsters that must be vanquished, knights and civil wars – as well as drawing on the traditions of various other mythologies to form a narrative space that is uncanny and somehow both filled with interest and almost devoid of character. Everything is muddled, from literary reference-points to the geography; all this contributes to the undeniable sense of confusion and dream-like suspension of reality. For Ishiguro, these half-formed allusions represent memories falling to the failing mind, and say something about the value of remembering and the threat of not, a fact that any historian will keenly confirm.

The dialogue of the novel is oddly formal, characteristic of language when it is not coloured by memory, but left as a functional tool of communication. This style introduces questions about the art of language and what elevates it beyond its rudimentary use as a means of communicating ideas. So too, the knock on effect this has on the formation and nurturing of ideas themselves: if language is functional, impoverished even, then thought must lose something. Like the people who inhabit Ishiguro’s world, when memory fades and words fail, nothing quite fits together. It is an interesting technique and one that fits with the wider ideas in the novel, but for the reader, the dialogue-heavy passages can leave one feeling a little dry.

Beyond the most obvious examples, there are metaphors all over the place in the text if one looks hard enough – try, for example, to read Querig the fiery she-dragon who terrorises a people as a stand-in for Margaret Thatcher and the novel becomes an intriguing political allegory. Or consider the suspicious monks who, it is suggested, keep Querig alive – and The Buried Giant becomes an attack on theologies that attempt to remove free will and keep people spellbound and stupid, burying logic rather than facing the existential reality that would see them dispel all theology. Indeed, the scope and range of valid readings is enormous and, at times, one wonders if Ishiguro quite manages to pull off the huge number of, often conflicting, things he attempts in The Buried Giant. On the whole, one would have to say that he does, and where he doesn’t the sheer ambition more than makes up for any slight issues.

As the final pages close in, much of the mist has cleared for the reader, but things are by no means clear. The strange ending leaves one in undiscovered territory, unsure how things stand within the novel and forced to delve into the questions raised in the previous three hundred pages. It is an oddly appropriate end to an unusual and thought-provoking read, which is reminiscent of The Unconsoled in its dream-like quality. The reverberations of what Ishiguro has attempted here will run on long after the final pages for the reader, and, as a more accessible piece than The Unconsoled, might find wider acclaim. Expect to see The Buried Giant on the shortlist for many a fiction prize over the coming year (those, at least, that can see past its nominal categorisation as a Fantasy novel – a genre that doesn’t seem to find favour too often).

There's been quite a lot of negative press about this (and plenty of good too) and while I understand some of the points I really can't see this as the failure that some reviewers are labelling it. It is comfortably the best book I have read this year so far and found it profoundly moving.


Useful Links
Reviews of The Buried Giant on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Buried Giant on Amazon (US)

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8 comments:

Alyssa Jarrett said...

Great review! The negative reviews are written by people who do not understand or appreciate Ishiguro's style. He has asserted that he selects theme first and setting second. What may look like genre-hopping is actually a strategic method of storytelling. Loved this book!

Jenna @ Lost Generation Reader said...

This review is everything I've been thinking but haven't written down, but with a couple additional thoughts I hadn't considered, like the Margaret Thatcher metaphor. Well said, and I'm glad to be in good company of looking past the fantasy genre debate.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Thanks Alyssa, I agree - Ishiguro transcends the 'genre' in which he writes. Each book is unique but each is still, definitely, an Ishiguro!

Sadly, I think some people just found the book too slow. I can understand that point of view, even if it didn't affect me.

Thanks for stopping by :)

Matthew Selwyn said...

Thanks for dropping by, Jenna - Twitter spamming is obviously the way to get readers ;)

I'm glad we're on the same page with this - I know a lot of people haven't liked it too much, so I'm glad to have other people to eulogise about Ish with!

Zachary said...

Really enjoyed reading your review and revisiting The Buried Giant in my mind, thanks!

It's interesting you mentioned the different possible metaphors that lurk in the text. I like the Maggie Thatcher one alot. When I was reading it, the difference between the perception of Querig, and the reality, made me think instantly of the modern day scare-mongering which big media enterprises can be guilty of.

I love the idea that the mist is something which the reader experiences along with the characters. It's certainly skillful writing from Ishiguro.

I know you've already seen my review of the book but I'll leave a link here for anyone else who wants a read.

Matthew Selwyn said...

You are very welcome to post up a link to your post, Zachary - I enjoyed it and I never mind people leaving (relevant) links here.

That's an interesting idea about media scare-mongering. I can't help but feel there are numerous small metpahors hidden in the story and that I barely scratched the surface on first read!

Zachary said...

Thanks very much Matthew!

Yes, I was talking to somebody only earlier today about the value of re-reading a novel/text a while after your first reading!

Matthew Selwyn said...

Well, especially with a memory as bad as mine! Every re-read is like a new experience!