REVIEW: The Humane, Uncompromising Sorrow of Kazuo Ishiguro's 'The Buried Giant'

Ishiguro’s novels, so varied in genre and setting, are unusually unified in theme. His protagonists can’t help remembering but are simultaneously unwilling or unable fully to recognise what their memories reveal; the books’ quietly darkling power comes from the sense they provoke in the reader of being complicit in all this forgetting and evading. The Buried Giant (Faber & Faber, HB, £20) is no exception, but it’s a fantasy novel, and in this more fantastical setting the characteristic resistance to revelation has been externalised. Here, the characters really can’t remember, and it may have something to do with the breath of a dragon.

Not unusually for an Ishiguro novel, initial reception has been mixed. Some have argued that the author’s resistance to storytelling momentum - and, indeed, to anything resembling stylistic flourish - make this an unsuccessful book, one that neither produces excitement nor the literary qualities which can replace excitement. Another criticism is that the book fails where others of Ishiguro’s succeed because its fantasy setting is simply too polite and generic, and that its amnesia allegory absolves the characters and hampers that Ishiguran sense of disturbing, mournful guilts. I mostly disagree with these criticisms, as a matter of fact, but they provide some interesting ways in which to approach the book.

Ishiguro’s carefully layered chronological structures in The Buried Giant give a sensation of subtle timelessness

Set in a semi-mythological Britain sometime in the sixth or seventh century, The Buried Giant concerns the quest of two elderly Britons to find their son, who left years previously. The problem is that a mist of forgetfulness has descended on the land and the couple can remember very little, either about why their son may have left or about their lives in general. As they travel they accrue companions: a Saxon warrior of almost supernatural abilities, a boy with a mysterious wound and the version of the knight Gawain of Arthurian legend. They also ruminate constantly and in a curiously stilted manner on the issue of their failure to remember, and it begins to emerge that much hinges on recent conflicts between the Britons and Saxons - as well as on the presence of that dragon.

It is surprising on the face of it that Ishiguro would turn to fantasy, given his narrative predilections, and for a fantasy novel the book’s pace is undeniably stolid (rips, for the most part, remain unroared). In fact, though, it’s not so very surprising a turn from the author. Ishiguro has always abjured writerly showing-off, indulging in few metaphors, similes or flights of mellifluence. He has also very often chosen to immerse his revelation-shy characters and their muted progresses in genres usually associated with livelier entertainment. Never Let Me Go, for instance, was an ostensible sci-fi novel fully committed to the tone of a gentle boarding-school tale; that commitment, though testing at points, had a cumulative power that was devastating. So let’s meet Ishiguro on his own terms. The question is whether or not The Buried Giant in fact manages to achieve a similar effect.

Even more than in The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro’s carefully layered chronological structures in The Buried Giant give a sensation of subtle timelessness: not only are we not entirely sure when the novel is set, we’re sometimes not even certain where we are in the novel itself. Set-pieces are related piecemeal in accounts from before and after the fact, and dramatic moments (the death of the grey-haired knight, the killing of the devil dog) pass anticlimactically before being revealed to be dramatic at all. It all has the effect of tightly controlling our movement through the book, giving a blinkered feeling that we must be careful not to go too fast, but even so that while we carefully circle and examine an event there are many other things at our periphery of which we’re only dimly aware.

once again Ishiguro has created a very distinct, very quietly powerful story that says a lot of interesting and mournful things about stories

It is indeed challenging to find these structures applied to a genre usually characterised by headlong motion, but this is Ishiguro’s stock-in-trade: the feeling that no matter how gently the narrative proceeds, no matter how carefully folded events are in the fabric of the book’s meticulous temporal arrangements, characters’ attempts to control their lives through how they tell them to themselves (and us) are always contingent and always threatened. I’d argue that the anticlimactic effects are in fact a crucial part of Ishiguro’s method: even when the threats and realities are ‘revealed’ they are not faced full-on, which is what gives them their power and luminescent sadness.

What of the criticism that the book is generic, inhabited by stereotypes who speak in stilted dialogue, and that those stereotypes’ inability to remember has a deleterious simplifying effect? Again, it would be futile to argue. But The Buried Giant is always telling us that it’s a book: it is a rehearsal of the tropes and idioms of twentieth century children’s fantasy (a postmodernist Roger Lancelyn Green, say), a project of cultural mining not only of tales of the Dark Ages but of the tellings of them upon which the late twentieth century was reared. To these strata Ishiguro is adding a further layer: a retelling for the traumatised modern age, a vaguely historicised reconfiguration that replaces noble, spry adventurers with epistemologically bewildered elders who are threatened both by forgetfulness and simultaneously by the possible consequences of remembering. Does the prose sometimes read as awkward and unreal? - yes, but those are the novel’s sometimes demanding terms.

I’m not sure that The Buried Giant is quite as good as Ishiguro’s finest work, where the tension between revelation and sublimation has been handled to more powerfully poignant effect: the fact that here the characters have actually forgotten creates difficulties that I don’t think are quite resolved, in the end. Nevertheless, once again Ishiguro has created a very distinct, very quietly powerful story that says a lot of interesting and mournful things about stories (and, in a final reveal that I won’t ruin, about storytellers). It’s not a compulsive page-turner, certainly, but it does evoke the buried, humane yet uncompromising sorrow that I think is always its author’s aim. The novel may not be an unqualified success, even on its own terms, but it is a resounding one.

More about the author

About the author

Abe Davies is a writer and journalist. He has a couple of literature degrees from UEA and St Andrews, and has written on everything from cognac to Shakespeare's ghosts to contemporary American photography. He's also worked in marketing and publicity in the publishing industry for five years, and when he was younger in a lot of restaurants.

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