The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
It’s already been widely publicised that Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant is a fantasy novel, with the words ‘Tolkien’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ being casually bandied about. However, it has about as much in common with Tolkien or Game of Thrones as Nineteen Eighty-Four has with The Hunger Games or a Raymond Chandler novel has with Alexander McCall Smith – they’re superficially part of the same broad genre but that’s more or less where the similarity ends. In any case, whether this is or isn’t a fantasy novel is frankly neither here nor there; it shouldn’t make any difference whatsoever to the way it’s read or understood.
The Buried Giant is set in a version of post-Arthurian Britain peopled by Britons and Saxons and yes, there is a dragon, there are ogres, there is a quest of sorts, but its language feels more like that of a traditional fairy-tale, and its episodic plot gives an impression more of an allegorical epic. There is little sense of the characters’ inner thoughts or feelings, and their reactions to and interactions with one another are matter-of-factly expressed, most often through dialogue.
This is heightened by the omniscient narrator, whose viewpoint takes in not only the characters’ actions but also the full scope of history. At times, we’re addressed as modern readers, at other times, as readers who might conceivably have lived in Saxon roundhouses. These sorts of inconsistencies are jarring, but clearly deliberate; we’re expected to take notice of them. When the omniscient narrator is revealed to have an identity, these oddities begin to make a sort of sense, and this is one of the more powerful moments in the book – although much is still left unexplained, and I’m not sure there is quite enough effort made to bring the narrative together.
The book begins with an ageing Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice living almost communally in a subterranean village, deciding to set out to find their adult son. They can’t remember his name, are not entirely sure where he is, and indeed have gone for long periods without remembering that he ever existed at all: the Britain of The Buried Giant is shrouded in an oppressive mist that refuses to lift and is affecting the memories of its inhabitants. When people leave the village, they are fast forgotten. Axl and Beatrice, despite their touching devotion to one another, have few memories of their own pasts; while their relationship has clearly lasted for decades and seems to be a loving one, they can’t be completely certain that their happy marriage has always been so.
Shortly after their departure, they stop at a Saxon village, and it’s really here that we (and they) begin to acquire vague, intangible wisps of the past. How did the Britons and Saxons pass from what once a state of violent conflict into an uneasy peace? Why does Saxon warrior Wistan think he has met Axl before? Why does Beatrice see the bones of children where her travelling companions see none?
The novel as the whole, rather like Ishiguro’s earlier book Never Let Me Go, is about the way societies face up to – or don’t face up to – terrible things. Forgetting has its own consequences, but remembering can be devastating too. Do Axl and Beatrice owe it to those wronged in the past to lift the mist that clouds their memories, or in doing so, will they unleash another wave of atrocities?
In reality, Britain was ravaged by battles between Britons, Romans, Saxons and Vikings for centuries – and King Arthur himself, constantly evoked throughout the novel and represented by an elderly Sir Gawain, is at least in a part a ‘memory’ collectively constructed to create a false, romanticised British past. There are obvious parallels to contemporary situations too – how do Bosnian Muslims relate to their Serbian neighbours after Srebenica? How can Spain forget the Civil War when the bodies of those murdered by Franco’s forces are still being uncovered?
The Buried Giant is also, however, about love and loyalty. There are small-scale wrongs to be remembered, too – betrayals on a personal, but painful, level that might also be revealed when the amnesia-inducing fog is lifted. A mysterious boatman tells Beatrice and Axl of an island where people walk in eternal isolation from everyone - including their spouse, unless they are truly in love. Could any couple feel confident in making that journey? And conversely, could any relationship survive the implications of the decision not to do so?
There are elements of The Buried Giant that are gripping, fascinating and deeply touching (the ending moved me to tears). Equally, I did feel that the detached, matter-of-fact style employed throughout, particularly in the dialogue, detracted somewhat from the characters and the depth of their experiences. I am certain this was a deliberate technique on Ishiguro’s part, and it’s one that we see elsewhere in his work, but I didn’t feel it worked here as well as it works in Never Let Me Go, when the truth of the characters’ fate seems all the more affecting as a result.