by Kazuo Ishiguro
reviewed by CBR Editor
Fans of good writing know Kazuo Ishiguro, most likely. Some have even read his books. Remains of the Day, later translated into a haunting film, is well-known. What is perhaps most remarkable about Ishiguro as a writer is that if you obliterated all trace of his name from his books, there would be little to link them all together as the work of the same author. For many authors, this would be the kiss of death, and I imagine the marketing department at Vintage Books wouldn’t mind if he’d make their job easier by settling on a consistent style. For Ishiguro though, and for those of us who’ve read his work, it’s a strength. Each book he writes is something we simply cannot be ready for.
His latest book, The Buried Giant, is an entirely different animal from Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go, and in it he takes on the genre of the fable, or the epic…or is it more like a saga? In the book we are in a post-Arthurian Britain (in which Arthur and his knights did in fact exist, and recently) where a strange mist cloaks the land, a mist that confuses and obscures peoples’ memories. Britons and Saxons live side-by-side and their ancient hatreds are forgotten, at least just enough that they give one other the benefit of the doubt. This is a key feature of the story; the characters sense or feel things from the past, but can’t quite describe it in their minds. They don’t trust their own memories. This mist of forgetfulness is said to be the breath of a wicked she-dragon named Querig.
“A good book offers you a chance to project yourself into it, to imagine the tragedies of the fiction are, temporarily, your own.”
Into this hazy, indistinct world of ghosts venture an aging, if not quite elderly, Briton couple Axl and Beatrice. They are driven to travel to visit their son, whom they haven’t seen in a long while. Exactly how long since they’ve seen him, or even where their son lives is no less hazy to them as anything else, but that doesn’t stop them. As their journey stretches out into a hopeless meandering, we begin to understand more and more this mythical world and its inhabitants. Wistan, the Saxon soldier and the young boy whose life he’s saved, Edwin. There’s Sir Gawain the knight (yes, that Gawain) and eventually, Querig herself. Throughout adventures in the wilderness, in a monastery under siege and atop a mountain where the dragon seethes in a kind of caldera, we pick up little pieces here and there about Beatrice and Axl. The memory-robbing mist seems to seep into us as readers as we struggle no less than the characters to understand the tortured history that underpins their world. Axl, we sense, was once a warrior in his own right, a long time ago, and Wistan and Gawain recognize him, but naturally can’t fully remember how or why. Beatrice is hiding something painful in her past, which she remembers a little better than her husband. Axl represses a half-remembered rage from a younger time in his past, and harbors suspicions of his own about Beatrice, but ultimately the couple adore each other and live in terror that death will not permit them to remain together in the afterlife. The novel’s conclusion offers some answers but raises more.
I had difficulty finding my feet in the opening chapters of this novel. The speech employed by Ishiguro’s characters felt stilted, as though he were trying too hard to weave a kind of 12th century romantic poetic style into their words. People who’d spent an entire lifetime together spoke to each other too formally, I thought. In fact, this slight annoyance never entirely left me, up to the closing sentence, but my irritation softened once the characters themselves became more known to me. References throughout to classics such as Beowulf and, perhaps, Song of Roland, are too numerous to mention but thankfully never overt; Ishiguro is too good a writer to force a theme or grandstand a classical reference. Nevertheless, no great story is without debt, nor is it without pathos. There were subtle turns in the narrative that gave me pangs. A good book offers you a chance to project yourself into it, to imagine the tragedies of the fiction are, temporarily, your own. This occurred more than once in The Buried Giant for me, I don’t mind saying.
The double-sided coin that is Sir Gawain’s character is one of the most fascinating sub-plots in the entire story, and his worth isn’t fully obvious until he leaves it. The love and heartache between Axl and Beatrice, too, drives the plot and I found myself unable to bear the thought of their being separated, alive or dead. I rooted for Wistan’s sword and wondered if the old couple would ever find their son. The young boy Edwin was, in my opinion, sort of tacked-on as a necessary narrative element which becomes clear only at the end. He’s little more than an enigmatic parcel of baggage to the travelers.
The entire narrative is permeated with a deep sense of sadness and guilt. This applies to the old couple Axl and Beatrice…to Sir Gawain and his former lord Arthur…and of course to the Britons themselves, guilty of atrocities against the Saxons which the release of the mist will re-awaken. Of course, little is said about what sort of atrocities of the Saxons may have levied upon them, after all the cycle of vengeance is older than the Britons or the Saxons. Throughout the novel we grow to loathe the mist, and hope that these characters can find a way to dispel it, but there are forebodings about what that might mean. Will the devoted couple remember some damning event from the past to poison their love? Will war tear the land apart as it once did? By the novel’s end I began to hope the mist would remain forever.
Ishiguro delved into a whole new discipline in choosing the saga, or epic, as his format. The mythical creature and its magic is used as plausibly as any human element, and the story itself is centered on the sort of timeless themes that transcend genre. The ending, and I mean only the very end, was unsatisfying to me and while I don’t always mind endings that deliberately leave room for the reader to speculate, this one baffled me. It left something wanting, rather than something shared. Ishiguro’s The Sleeping Giant is nevertheless a brilliantly executed book and I can almost guarantee you won’t read anything else like it.
The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro Published by Vintage International 317 pp