Back when this came I know there was a lot of hullabaloo about whether or not it was fantasy, and whether or not Kazuo Ishiguro wanted it to be seen as fantasy or liked fantasy or whatever. It’s true that Ishiguro, much like Margaret Atwood, has a certain literary cachet that allows his books to escape genre ghettoing—Never Let Me Go is science fiction like it or not, not that I’m going to spoil it for you if you haven’t read it and therefore don’t know why it’s SF—and The Buried Giant is fantasy. But that seems beside the point. I’m not going to compare this book to Ishiguro’s other novels, because part of his style is that each novel is a very separate entity. He doesn’t write in one particular genre, setting, or form. Nevertheless, I’m ambivalent about this one, guys.
Atwood is an appropriate comparison, because I’m reminded of some of my earlier attempts to read her novels, such as The Blind Assassin. I could see a good story in there and appreciate the quality of the writing, but stylistically it didn’t dovetail with my preferences. The Buried Giant is much the same. Ishiguro’s post-Arthurian quest epic distilled into a story about an old married couple trying to get to the next village is simultaneously a brilliant novel and also a little bit boring. Axl and Beatrice are such unassuming characters you’d be forgiven for your mind wandering to whether or not you remembered to put the trash cans out or turn off that light switch before you left for work. Yet that is entirely the point.
I like the over-arching mystery of the memory mist. Ishiguro exploits it effectively to manipulate both the pace and substance of the narrative. Not only are Axl and Beatrice mutable characters, but the third-person narrative is themselves unreliable to an extent, and that makes for interesting storytelling. The mist’s in-universe explanation is a clever twist on the nature and abilities of mythological creatures. And it provides an effective bridge between Axl and Beatrice’s journey to their son’s village and Gawain/Wistan’s duties regarding Querig the dragon.
When the story begins, it isn’t immediately obvious how Ishiguro is going to stretch it into 300-some pages. Their son’s village is ostensibly two or three days’ walk away. The inevitable sidetracking is gradual, as more and more events pile up to foil Axl and Beatrice’s resolve to complete their simple goal. It’s seldom a matter of people stopping them from proceeding (though it happens once or twice) but simply that something slightly more important arises. These distractions punctuate their journey and transform it into a far more important quest.
The post-Arthurian country and its nascent conflict between Britons and Saxons provide an interesting pseudo-historical/semi-mythological setting. Wistan, a Saxon warrior living outside of the British Isles, embodies this dynamic: he gets along well enough with Britons Beatrice and Axl, yet he exhorts and demands that the Saxon boy they befriend, Edwin, grow up hating all Britons. When everyone learns the true origin and purpose of the mist, this underscores a theme that conflict is inevitable, and that preventing it is preferable but ultimately doomed to failure. Wistan and Axl represent competing ideas in a Hobbes/Locke vein: one believes the war should happen sooner rather than later; the other hopes that cooler heads might yet prevail.
The Buried Giant is not a historical retelling of the Saxon conquest of Britain. It’s not a Bernard Cornwell novel that gets down and dirty with the inhabitants of a fractious country often at war with itself as much as it is with its neighbours. This is a kind of colonization of the history of the most colonizing nation on Earth, if you can appreciate that irony. Ishiguro borrows the very real cultural and political conflict between the Saxons and Britons and turns it to mythological and literary ends. I mean, ultimately the history of that time and the historicity of King Arthur is so muddled that there is plenty of room in this sandbox. But I think this is one of the ways in which this novel feels confused about its identity. It references Arthurian legend, borrows Gawain and name-checks a handful of other Knights and Merlin, just as it references Saxons/Britons. Beyond these trappings, however, this novel feels very generic, like it could have taken place anywhere.
Although larger issues of sovereignty and nationhood and loyalty make their appearance, the novel comes down to the love between two people. Ishiguro asks whether a couple’s love can be strong enough to withstand the tests of time and depredations of memory. I’m surprised that I like the ending, which is rather ambiguous, because there was a large chunk in the middle of the novel where I was not interested in what was going on. But after we resolve the dragon and mist stories, the conclusion to Axl and Beatrice’s journey is endearing. The uncertainty of the ending might feel frustratingly postmodern, but it’s an appropriate send-off for everything else in this novel.
Oddly enough perhaps the best thing I can say about The Buried Giant is that it has suddenly given me a craving to re-read Bridge of Birds? I think it’s the similarities in its vague pseudo-historical setting and quest-like buddy protagonist structure. Also having just looked up that book I’ve been reminded that there are two sequels, which I would probably be better off ignoring because they’re sure not to be as sublime as the first. But anyway, that’s my take: reminded me to read a novel from six years ago that I loved a lot.