Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.
Reviewed by Arthur Bahr (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Kazuo Ishiguro’s seventh and most recent novel, The Buried Giant, is a frustrating one to read. Some part of this effect seems likely to be intentional, not just because Ishiguro can write beguilingly flowing stories when he chooses, but also because this book deals with two of the most frustrating aspects of human existence, memory and regret: the uncertainty of the former, the certainty of the latter, and the always vexed relation between them. Our frustration as readers, then, provides a way of empathizing with the characters whose struggles he recounts.
That’s the glass-half-full version, anyway. Sometimes—too often, for me—the novel was simply frustrating: slow, confusing, or both. The last sixty or so of its 317 pages pack considerable emotional punch, and Ishiguro’s prose is as lovely as ever, but there were many other moments when reading left me feeling aimless and abstracted, inclined simply to put the novel down and wander off. I would not have finished it if I hadn’t agreed to write this review; indeed, this review is overdue because I had a hard time finishing it. At some basic level, that can’t be a good thing to say about a piece of fiction.
But perhaps (glass-half-full speaking again) that too is part of the point. For it is precisely to escape the kind of mental and emotional fog that the novel’s opening pages created in me that the main characters, an elderly couple named Axl and Beatrice, set off from their village in search of their grown son, of whom they have only vague and fleeting memories. Theirs is a very low-fantasy version of Britain, ca. 550 or so: post-Roman withdrawal, but before native Britons like Axl and Beatrice had been wholly displaced by the Saxons, who when we first meet them seem more like immigrants than conquerors. (That distinction gets addressed, at first only obliquely but with increasing power, over the course of the novel).
And so a quest is born: to find not just their son, but also their memories—of him and of their long, apparently happy marriage. It gradually emerges that the she-dragon Querig is somehow responsible for the mental haze in which inhabitants of the country seem generally to wander, so their own, personal quest becomes linked to the larger one of slaying the dragon and restoring the memories of the land and its people.
Any good quest needs companions, whom Axl and Beatrice duly acquire: the brave warrior Wistan, a Saxon by birth but raised among Britons; the strange Saxon child Edwin, who is on a mysterious family quest of his own; and ultimately Sir Gawain, nephew of the recently deceased King Arthur. From a medievalist’s perspective, the characterization of Sir Gawain is one of the least satisfying and frankly most irritating aspects of the book: old and possibly senile, his complaints about the weight of his armor and self-congratulatory non sequiturs about his own past heroism seem at first like comic relief straight out of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. And when a monastery that grudgingly offers the travelers shelter proves to be hiding dark and bloody secrets, it’s hard to shake the impression that Ishiguro’s is a stereotyped, limited, and basically unsympathetic perspective on the medieval.
Thankfully, this dismissive attitude becomes more nuanced as the novel progresses, which is a big part of why the reading experience as a whole ultimately becomes more pleasurable. As Ishiguro (very fitfully) reveals more of these characters’ histories, it becomes clear that he is using Britain’s distant and quasi-legendary past as the setting for a didactic fairy-tale about the present: multiethnic societies should be celebrated, but we should be clear-sighted about the practical challenges that they pose; war and vengeance are horrible, but difficult either to eradicate or to forget; ideals are tricky things, worth fighting for but all too easily compromised by the fight. These are wholly conventional pieties of the secular-humanist intelligentsia, and in that sense unsatisfying to have dramatized at such length (don’t any of us who are even vaguely likely to read an Ishiguro novel always-already believe them?), but Ishiguro is a talented enough writer that he offers more than just virtue-signaling. Especially rewarding are his rare, almost reluctant forays into the supernatural; an encounter with pixies proves especially harrowing for its potent blend of the winsome and the malevolent. Fight scenes feel realistic and resolutely unglamorized: even warriors who appear to have the upper hand recognize that they might die, and they plan accordingly; spectators respect the seriousness of what takes place, and the episodes as a whole feel dramatic, affecting, and almost sacral.
Ultimately, The Buried Giant offers a version of one of the most durable medieval stories, for which the appearance of Sir Gawain as a character should have prepared us, his initially farcical appearance having been perhaps a red herring: King Arthur’s ideals have been undercut, partly by his own human frailty, and ultimately they prove as dead as he himself is when the novel opens. Camelot is no more, and perhaps never really was. The book’s brief, quasi-allegorical final chapter reinforces this central truth at a poignantly personal level. Here the confusion over exactly what transpires—elsewhere a source of irritated frustration—feels brilliantly true to the messy experience of life and love. It left me with the desire, not to reread, exactly, but to continue to digest and process what I’d just read—indeed, to write a review that I’d been avoiding. For the question that the novel poses is a real one, too often answered only superficially if at all: what do we sacrifice when we seek to recover the truth, and might the hazy complacency of forgetfulness not prove superior? If such questions sound like heresy, then Ishiguro’s novel—despite and perhaps because of its frustrations—is nevertheless worth reading, for I am less certain than when I began it of the answers to them.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology