I follow few contemporary authors as closely as I follow Kazuo Ishiguro. Of course, following his work has turned out to be quite easy: before this week’s publication of his seventh novel, The Buried Giant, Ishiguro’s last novel was published a full decade ago, and I’ve been anticipating his follow-up ever since. That 2005 novel was Never Let Me Go, a strong contender on a strong Man Booker Prize shortlist. I actually didn’t love Never Let Me Go as much as almost everyone else, but for my money Ishiguro wrote two of the great novels of the late twentieth century — The Remains of the Day and The Unconsoled — and I’m a great admirer of When We Were Orphans, the novel Ishiguro published in 2000. I’ll read Ishiguro’s novels until he’s done, in spite of the sadness I feel reporting that I am not a fan of The Buried Giant.
With The Buried Giant, Ishiguro surprises by writing his first fantasy novel (I’m going to call it that with no qualms — fantasy does not mean it is not “literary,” whatever that means), set around the sixth century AD in an England we know relatively little about. The Saxons have invaded and are pushing the Britons to the west. King Arthur’s golden age is recent — though not well remembered — history. It’s a dark, intriguing, foreign world, as the narrator — some omniscient voice that at times when telling the story takes on the collective first person tense; this is our storyteller, pulling us in — tells us in the opening paragraph:
You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated. There were instead miles of desolate, uncultivated land; here and there rough-hewn paths over craggy hills or bleak moorland. Most of the roads left by the Romans would by then have become broken or overgrown, often fading into wilderness. Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were still native to this land.
A majority of the communities of humans dotting the British island foster rough lives of subsistence, threatened in day-to-day mundanity by ogres. The community of Britons we (I too am adopting the collective first person) is a series of underground burrows that resemble rabbit warrens. These are weak creatures.
Our focus is on two of the seemingly weakest, an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice. When the books begins, they seem to be set on living out their last days, serving the community but getting little in return other than the basic necessities. They are not considered important enough to possess candles, so when they go to their hole in the ground it is completely dark. When we settle down and meet Axl, he is perplexed: “Had they always lived like this, just the two of them, at the periphery of the community? Or had things once been quite different?”
He doesn’t remember. No one seems to remember. This is not a case where the old man’s mind going; rather, the whole region is affected by the “mist,” which makes them all forget pretty much everything but the present. I’ll let Ishiguro’s narrator explain:
You may wonder why Axl did not turn to his fellow villagers for assistance in recalling the past, but this was not as easy as you might suppose. 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.
Axl almost remembers some things, like walking around with one of his children, but at the novel’s start this is so fragmented he must also wonder if he even had children of his own. His concerns eventually affect Beatrice who says, “Now I think of it, Axl, there may be something in what you’re always saying. It’s queer the way the world’s forgetting people and things from only yesterday and the day before that. Like a sickness come over us all.” So Beatrice proposes a journey to visit their son, who lives in a village nearby and will welcome them and take care of them. We’re right to doubt her certainty, especially since Axl, who just that day was not even sure he had children, is seemingly struck with certainty as well and agrees to go on the journey. However, he does not remember why his son left. Beatrice says:
“It could be he quarreled with the elders and had to leave. I’ve asked around, and there’s no one here remembers him. But he wouldn’t have done anything to bring shame on himself, I know for sure. Can you remember nothing of it yourself, Axl?”
And so this book is set up, and so we embark with Axl and Beatrice on their journey through a land inhabited by suspicious soldiers, an elderly and somewhat errant Knight of the Round Table, mysterious boatmen, ogres, pixies, and a dragon.
As we move forward, the book opens up into an exploration — though not, in my opinion, a particularly strong one — of the buried past, of history, settlements, civilizations built upon a slaughter that is now forgotten or, at least, conveniently forgotten. This is memory that slips away due to denial. There is so much potential here.
First, the setting is perfect. Here is a time in English history that we know little about. It is possible, though debated, that mass genocide occurred as the Saxons pushed the Britons west. We don’t know. We’ve forgotten. Second, the first paragraph of the book does an exceptional job setting all of this up by presenting to us first a Britain that is tame and tranquil, filled with meadows that are literal burial grounds. Yes, I was absolutely on board with the setting and the basic premise and deeply interested in the themes. I just couldn’t get over the style and structure of The Buried Giant.
For me, the book suffers from the strange and seemingly contradictory condition of being at once too vague and too controlled or calculated. As is common in a tale of a long journey, there are many encounters with the geography and with the other living creatures who dwell on the path. For me — and again I want to remark that I am in the minority it seems — many of these encounters were cut short (even the ones that ran too long) because they looked down a pathway and then turned away. This could work thematically — after all, the plague of memory loss is suggestive of a purposeful rebuke to exploration — but after so many promising avenues were disposed of without ever being tapped into (like the buried giant of the title) I was left to look at everything as a nod toward the themes rather than a development, or exploration, of the themes (again, like the buried giant of the title). Strangely, by investing mostly metaphorical meaning in these encounters, they become less vital. The Buried Giant suffers from a fog that may or may not have been deliberate but that certainly kept me from embracing it.
As I mentioned above, the book also felt strangely over calculated. For decades Ishiguro has been praised for his “subtle” style, the way he brings up hidden things — usually repressed things — over the course of a novel until the real situation is revealed. I have admired this in the past as I think he does it exceptionally well in most of his books. But I struck a turning point with Never Let Me Go. In that book, the “subtle” clues started yelling from the page: There’s more to this story and here is your clue!! Many authors use a process of slow revelation, but in Never Let Me Go and now in The Buried Giant, the mechanics of that process have become more apparent, subtlety becomes its opposite. In The Buried Giant, it felt even worse. Here these notes of foreshadowing (or revelations to the past) seem to have become a crutch, allowing Ishiguro to ignore other — vital — methods of narrative and thematic development.
Though he does use a lot of repetition. Why, in this review alone I’ve quoted — not purposefully cherry-picking — two moments when the narrator or characters remark upon their inability to remember. This refrain is almost constant, and I found it tiresome, particularly when coupled with a general style I found somewhat embarrassing. In The Buried Giant, Ishiguro has adopted a prose style that is meant to give some kind of old England flavor.
“Don’t worry, Axl, they know me well enough by now. Besides, one of their elders here is a Briton, regarded by all as a wise leader even if he’s not of their blood. He’ll see to it we have a safe roof tonight. Even so, Axl, I think something’s happened and I’m uneasy. Now here’s another man with a spear arrived, and that’s a pack of fierce dogs with him.”
The book is filled with this kind of stylized talk as Axl and Beatrice give us exposition as they formally talk to each other as if the other is blind. Ishiguro has noted in interviews about the book that his wife found the dialogue in his first draft laughable, so he scrapped it. I’m not sure whatever improvements were enough.
I can excuse most of this stuff away, again by looking at the themes. Axl and Beatrice’s dialogue echoes and feels insubstantial because they lack, in any meaningful way if not literally, a past together. With that stripped away, their relationship, with all of its terms of endearment, feels hollow, formality built around emptiness. And indeed, the status of a relationship with no memories is another theme in the novel, one I enjoyed. Normally, a nice relation between theme and style is a plus, but here I feel I’m excusing style by pointing to the themes, and that is related to my problem above: a nod to the theme is not the same as an exploration of the theme. The themes and style seemed half-baked. It’s a shame, as I do think the potential for more is there. And maybe it is there, and I just need time to see it.
In the meantime, if I want a book that looks at repressed emotions and the shame associated with the past, Ishiguro has given me better, and those books are so strong I can’t wait to read what he writes next.