This book comes freighted with more expectations than many – Ishiguro may, after all, be the only novelist of his lauded generation who has never produced a bad or even mediocre novel. But there are fears, too – his last two books (Never Let Me Go, and the story cycle Nocturnes) are my least favourites. Is he on the slide?
My first response to The Buried Giant was to realise how rudderless we feel in the teeth of a new book which is really new, sui generis, and how much we rely on – or at least use as a springboard – existing and received opinion about strange classics. I first read it a couple of months before publication, and came away buzzing with admiration but otherwise not knowing precisely what to think. (It was, I think, my desire for precision that was the problem.) I spoke to several others who had read it early, and a theme recurred – “befuddled”, “scratching my head”, “scrambled” – which reassured me at least that I had not missed something blindingly obvious.
So how can a book which, on many levels, baffles the reader be a rewarding experience? Easy: because that is not the reader’s only response. There is a huge amount in this book – it contains multitudes – and its half-life after reading is long. Part of my problem with it was not a problem with it at all: that afterwards, I couldn’t settle for a time into anything else as I kept wanting to return to The Buried Giant. Also it emphasises that a book like this is not a mystery to be solved, but a reflection and representation of life which is – let’s say – a mystery we all take part in.
What does it contain? It has some familiar themes for readers of Ishiguro’s previous novels, though mainly from the trickier of his books such as The Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans: a dreamlike logic which telescopes locations and fuzzes the facts, and narrative detours on a quest the protagonists don’t really understand themselves. It also holds some firsts for Ishiguro, like a portrait of a marriage, and switches in narrators, though most of the story is told in the third person (another first). This is interesting because until now, Ishiguro has relied to some extent on his narrators’ ignorance of reality for his effects. Here, he brings it into the open by setting his story in a land where people’s memories are failing them.
In terms of setting, The Buried Giant follows Never Let Me Go in using an alternative historic England: this time, around the fifth or sixth century AD, when the Britons are being pushed west by the incoming Saxons, and people share their space with ogres, pixies and dragons. The inclusion of these creatures means the novel will inevitably be referred to as fantasy, and if the simple presence of supernatural creatures makes it fantasy, then so it is. But this would be to overlook the fact that these elements are not a primary purpose of the book, any more than the science fictional nature of Kathy and her colleagues’ existence in Never Let Me Go was the centre of that book. Wikipedia defines fantasy literature as “written works that utilise the motifs, themes and stylistic approaches expected in the fantasy genre.” This is pretty circular, but it’s clear that The Buried Giant does not conform to any expectations, genre-based or otherwise. When devilish creatures are encountered, they’re despatched almost as an aside, or turn out to be weak and elderly and hardly worth battling. This deliberate diminution of effect goes all the way through the book from the title down: the buried giant referred to is a mound on the land that the protagonists worry about crossing, so they decide to circumnavigate it. We expect difficulties, but the next time we encounter them, they have passed it without incident.
‘They’ are Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple of Britons who live in a village where a council makes edicts that are unexplained (such as that Axl and Beatrice are not permitted a candle in their chamber), and people quickly forget those who disappear, even when they return. “The mist” is how Axl and Beatrice refer to the clouding of memory which affects everything and everyone: they cannot even remember if they have a son, though they quickly decide that they have and that they must go to his village, though they are not quite sure where it is. (“Already these recollections were growing confused, in much the way a dream does in the seconds after waking.”) So the story proceeds by ellipsis and omission, and most of the characters’ questions, like the reader’s, will never be answered. Axl and Beatrice’s nonexistent memories of their son are representative of a wider phenomenon: people alight on ideas which then become solid, the mind grasping at any detail, however vague, to build a strong conviction from nothing but air. Simultaneously, in the absence of knowledge, superstition runs amok. There is much discussion between Axl and Beatrice of the benefits of memory: they know they love one another (they are almost comically devoted) but have no evidence how or why. They want to retrieve their memories, but worry that these might dredge up experiences best forgotten. Like the buried giant, memories may best be left undisturbed. Yet what do we have but our memories, and what are our character and relationships based on but what we have known so far?
This paradox of memory is applied more broadly in the book. Our Britons encounter a Saxon warrior, Wistan, and we might expect conflict, but he is respectful and recalls that he was trained by a Briton. Yet distrust is not far away, and it is not difficult to see modern parallels in the theme of two peoples warring for reasons based only on memory and not on personal experience: future generations inheriting grievances like genetic mutations. We also learn, later in the book, of another purpose for the imagery of the buried giant: once a feared creature is killed, Wistan predicts that
the giant, once well buried, now stirs. When soon he rises, as surely he will, the friendly bonds between us will prove as knots young girls make with the stems of small flowers. Men will burn their neighbours’ houses by night. Hang children from trees at dawn. The rivers will stink with corpses bloated from their days of voyaging.
At this point The Buried Giant seemed like another first for Ishiguro: a political book, reminding us of post-war regimes like Iraq.
Along their journey, Axl and Beatrice encounter many other people, some of whom, as in The Unconsoled, seem to represent aspect of their own characters and lives – a woman abandoned without her husband by a boatman expresses Beatrice’s own anxieties about being left by Axl, and Edwin, a boy they take with them after he is forced to flee his village, acts as a surrogate for their putative son – as does, more confusingly still, a soldier they meet while with Edwin. They also meet Sir Gawain, still pottering about in his old age and not quite getting around to fulfilling King Arthur’s demands of him, and getting pretty shirty when reminded of his failure. Many of these encounters are enlightening (or at least cast interesting shadows), but sometimes the diversions on the quest and the new characters are duller than must have been intended. In particular, a long stretch of the novel set in a monastery and immediately after the characters leave, sags dangerously and had me hoping for a magic spell to get to the other side.
It’s possible to see how the entire book might have that effect on some readers. Ishiguro repeatedly frustrates any hopes for a usual narrative trajectory, muffles noise, and hints at things which are never explicitly revealed. It is because of this that, despite the language being simple, despite every action and event being clearly described, we end up with such a thoroughly enigmatic novel – a magical mystery tour. The narrative voice is seamlessly executed, with no authorial trace – Ishiguro never hammers things home for the reader, or even taps them lightly – and this makes it immersive and engaging. The other aspect of The Buried Giant that pushed it higher in my estimation was the relationship between Axl and Beatrice. The uncertainty and imbalance of their love moves through the book from almost nauseatingly uxorious (“Still here, princess”) to horribly upsetting (if I mention pixies at this point, those who have read the book will nod solemnly). Their dialogue is more often crosstalk than coherence, as they constantly disagree over memories, and they exhibit a combination of blithe reassurance and anxious caution that looks very like much familial love. As the book progressed, I started to think more and more of how their lack of memories were a kind of death, and as with Never Let Me Go, death and how we approach it and live with it looms large in this book.
I have written 1,500 words on The Buried Giant without really doing much more than summarising what I see as the main points. It is too big for me to do more than kick its tyres and nod appreciatively. It is frustrating and as far from perfect as we might expect a great novel to be, and part of my appreciation may well be an awestruck belief that what I don’t fully grasp must be better than me. It is a book that will be discussed and that will endure, and it has the rare feel of a publishing event which is also a literary event. It will not supplant The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go in popular affection, but for those readers who love a book that asks more than it answers: there’s a journey you must go on, and no more delay.