Book review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro - myth and mystery
Man Booker laureate sets a love story in the age of dragons
The Buried Giant
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Early in The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro's seventh novel and his first for a decade, the narrator indulges in a little literary landscape painting: "Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land. The people who lived nearby - one wonders what desperation led them to settle in such gloomy spots - might well have feared these creatures, whose panting breaths could be heard long before their deformed figures emerged from the mist."
Readers who swooned to 1989's Man Booker winner, The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro's cut-glass tale of butlers, class, political blindness and unrequited love, might be forgiven for thinking someone had slipped a chapter from The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones inside Ishiguro's latest. Ogres? Panting breaths? What next, fire-breathing dragons? Yes, as a matter of fact, but we have to wait until the second half for our high-brow Smaug.
Soothing the shock of these fantastic touches is the narrator himself, who urges calm from the outset. "But such monsters were not cause for astonishment," the reader is assured, as the speaker tries to make this land of monsters seem as commonplace as a modern hedgerow. "In any case, ogres were not so bad, provided one did not provoke them." And if that does not prevent nightmares, our speaker tells us that "we" are in this story together: "I have no wish to give the impression that this was all there was to Britain of those days; that at a time when magnificent civilisations flourished elsewhere in the world, we were here not much beyond the Iron Age."
That appeal to a collective pronoun is specific and collusive. Is Ishiguro's mouthpiece imagining that all readers are British? Or is it appealing to a broader, universal audience? His first main characters seem both particular and elusive. "In one such area on the edge of a vast bog, in the shadow of some jagged hills, lived an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice. Perhaps these were not their full names, but for ease, this is how we will refer to them."
The tone is conversational enough for our hero and heroine to feel hobbit-like, and indeed Axl and Beatrice are kindly, ageing and act lovingly towards each other. Living on the edges of their community (who live in a Bilbo Baggins-like warren of domiciles), they are peripheral in other respects, too, having been denied a place at the centre of the tribe and even a candle to light the dark nights.
Marginalisation turns out to be the least of their problems. Allowed access to Axl's inner life, we discover a struggle to recall the past: "Nothing would quite settle in his mind, and the more he concentrated, the fainter the fragments seemed to grow." This is not simply a symptom of Axl's age but a strange, even magical form of collective amnesia. "For in this community the past was rarely discussed. I do not mean that it was taboo. I mean that it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes. It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past - even the recent one."
No two people can agree on any single event that isn't directly before their eyes, and even then reality wobbles regularly. For Axl and Beatrice, a particularly contentious issue is a long-delayed journey to visit their son who "awaits us in his village". Each lays the reason for the delay at the feet of the other. "But why do you say it's my wishes that always stood in the way of it?" Axl asks. "I don't remember now all that's passed between us on it, Axl. Only that you always set your heart against it, even as I longed for it."
With this whisper of discord, the pair set out on the quest, that classic adventure of medieval romance. The well-read Ishiguro was doubtless thinking less about The Hobbit and more about medieval romances such as Gawain and the Green Knight. One clue is the appearance of Gawain, the last Arthurian knight, older, unwiser and a little more doddery than in his most famous literary incarnation.
Beatrice leads the way, not out of feminist bravery but because Axl knows attacks tend to come from behind. So begins a touching refrain in which Beatrice asks whether her husband is present, and Axl replies gently, "Still here, princess". Their call and response attests to touching tendresse but also other, darker intimations. Beatrice admits to feeling a pain in her side and asks whether they can visit a wise woman at their first stop, a Saxon village.
Before they do so, there is an almost surreal encounter in the ruins of a Roman villa, in which a tall boatman is menaced, bizarrely, by an old woman threatening to cut the throat of a small rabbit. The reason for such violence is the boatman's refusal to reunite the woman with her husband on a paradisal island over the sea. The allegorical fable will resound throughout the novel.
After they reach the Saxon village, this first quest breeds others. Finding the populace in the grip of paranoid terror after a pack of ogres kidnapped a young man named Edwin, Axl and Beatrice meet Wistan, a warrior who vows to effect a rescue. He does so, but his courage does little to cool the heated atmosphere. The villagers turn on poor Edwin when they learn he has been bitten by a strange, possibly malevolent creature. The civil strife offers a miniature of broader political schisms dividing the nation. Wistan himself is on a mission from a Saxon lord to inspect how his people are being treated by the Britons.
The final character in Ishiguro's cast appears when the now quartet set out together and meet Gawain, whose chivalric duty to hunt the dragon Querig has occupied much of his adult life. The mood of uncertainty creates a weird narrative friction as a seemingly concrete linear present begins to look increasingly unstable. This owes less to overt drama than to fundamental questions of identity.
Do the flashes that Axl has of his warlike past suggest a man at odds with his kindly demeanour? Are the intimations of quarrels with his wife and son the signs of a less peaceful family history? Why has Gawain taken so long chasing the dragon? And what exactly is all this amnesia covering up?
The Buried Giant has such heavy symbolism that it encourages repeated readings. The widespread forgetfulness, for example, hints of a nation split by warring tribes, competing philosophies and shared trauma. This could be the fading memory of Rome, glimpsed in ruins, or the building friction between Christian Britons and Saxon pagans. But deeper cultural shifts are also in evidence, such as the concept of romance.
To Gawain, it's a courtly code of duty and idealised love in which personal satisfaction yields to a greater cause. But such honour looks dated next to Axl and Beatrice, whose intimate, if unstable, relationship elevates romantic passion over rarer principles.
History is not only battles, politics and ideas, but also a transition in feeling. The Buried Giant explores classic Ishigurian tensions between intellect and emotion, between what we think (or feel) we know and how the world actually works. The final scene crystallises this in a meditation on death, and how this quickens our sense of what truly matters - whether it's a dragon, a cause or another person.
Axl and Beatrice find themselves reliving the earlier scene at the ruined Roman villa. If you missed the boatman's metaphorical journey the first time, you won't this time. The predicament now suddenly hits close to home, reinforcing the novel's examination of objective and subjective conceptions of reality.
The drama is elegantly and poignantly handled, but Ishiguro's care sacrifices some of the raw emotion that made Never Let Me Go's stark epiphanies so heart-breaking. The late revelations about Axl and Beatrice's past don't quite break the feeling that they are walking, talking symbols rather than well-rounded characters.
Head seems to win over heart, but is that really what Ishiguro wanted?