Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant

I recall the excitement last year amongst readers, when people found out Ishiguro had a new book out, his first in ten years. I must admit, I admire his muscled, perfect prose and his ability to lead the reader through a story, revealing just the right amount of information to spur the plot and the intrigue forward. However, I didn’t much like ‘Remains of the Day’: however good it was, it didn’t resonate because I couldn’t connect with the desires and behaviours of the refined, stoical characters.

‘Never Let Me Go’ was clever, political and shocking: a dystopian, science- fiction theme with plausible and engaging central protagonists is always impressive. Ishiguro’s characterisation  of Kathy is poignant and the love triangle involving her, Ruth and Tommy is at once funny and fragile against the backdrop of an  orphanage of cloned children bred for transplant organs.

‘The Buried Giant’ is something else. It is a book I would buy for my friends. I finished reading it in days. It is ‘Siddhartha’ meets fantasy fiction. It is about ogres and dragons and arthurian knights. It is set in seventh century Britain. The protagonists are an old Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice, who set off on a journey to their son’s village. They are not allowed a candle to light their dark and humble home because they are old, and their world is enveloped in a mist, both figurative and literal, which makes them forget the past. Killing Querig, the she-dragon, will rid the world of this mist but do they really want to remember the past?

Axl and his ‘princess’, Beatrice, remind me of Nell and Nagg in Samuel Beckett’s ‘Endgame’, the couple who live in dustbins. They are restricted, wholly symbiotic and we fear for their safety. Having a past you don’t remember can only result in trouble and Beatrice’s recurrent pains in her side make her vulnerable, so we cannot as readers invest in their future .

There are some great action scenes in ‘The Buried Dragon’: being attacked by pixies in a boat, fighting ogres in a burning castle. There are some exciting characters: Wistan, the warrior, the enigmatic Edwin with his dragon’s bite and the archaic Sir Gawain. The book bursts with imagination and it is a great story for lovers of fantasy fiction. It would make a great film, and the animation and CGI would thrill viewers of all ages.

It works well on the level of symbolic or allegorical meaning: the omnipresent mist hints at a world where it is better to forget the Britons’ betrayal and slaughter of the Saxons and to live in a present where memory is unimportant; to recall the past would be to evoke prejudice and bitterness. Of course, the denying of knowledge  forces the characters to live in a state  of uninformed naiveté, and there is a childlike quality to Axl and Beatrice’s relationship which keeps them both harmonious and superficial.

It is a brave novel for Ishiguro to have written. A new author wouldn’t dare to offer such a book for adults, and I know there are many people who are disappointed in ‘The Buried Giant’, being fans of his earlier, cooler prose and his use of language which represses meaning and demands subtextual analysis. The sales for the Juvenile market of Fantasy Fiction in 2014 was 45.5 million, and I wonder whether Ishiguro may lose some adult readers but gain a new wave of younger ones? Certainly, at times there is a sense of parody in the action and the language is often contrived and heavily stylised. But this is Ishiguro, after all. He can write what he likes.

Yet, I love this book. I think it is fresh, thoughtful, bold and innovative. Yes, the story and the characters may be simplistic, but it is a story which is at all times well shaped and well told, and the simplicity evokes an old world where the characters are kept in the dark and shapes of unimaginable creatures lurk beyond the fog.

The past is shrouded a mist and the future is dark and unknown  The story is tender, troubled and it tells of a couple whose lives are a blissful ignorance and asks about the importance and danger of the acquisition of knowledge.

It is a novel for our times.


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