A dark tale for a dark age

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant
Faber & Faber 2016 (2015)

It’s extraordinary that for a book with this title the only real mention of a burial place for such a fearsome creature comes very late in the book, and yet the reader gets the feeling that this novel is not really about this giant but another, one which is undefined, amorphous. Then there is the inkling, occasioning a little brow-wrinkling, that what the book itself is about is also shapeless and unclear. And hard on that thought’s heels comes the unbidden suspicion — is The Buried Giant a literary case of the Emperor’s New Clothes? Is the author, just newly awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, offering us something of no real substance, stringing us a line, pulling the wool over our eyes?

This is an ignoble thought, and yet one that must have struck many a reader puzzled over the point of this novel. Yes, there are a few obvious themes — about ageing, about faithful love, about communal forgetfulness and a pathological hatred of outsiders — but as these are explicitly described can there be deeper meanings that elude us? And if there aren’t, is this tale then just an extended parable with no inherent merit?

Let’s examine these valid questions in reverse order, beginning with the issue of the parable. Parables are of course stories with a message, allegories burdened with a moral or two. At their worst they’re crude things, badly designed, imparting a lesson that’s dubious. But at their best they do two things: first, they affirm life, and second, they linger in the mind, their images and narrative suggesting hidden depths in an altogether pleasing or intriguing way. If The Buried Giant is a parable it’s this second kind, to my way of thinking.

I’ve already alluded to elusive deeper meanings, and Ishiguro’s novel does invite the thoughtful reader to search for these. While John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (which the author may have partly taken as inspiration) is explicit in what each character stands for — their names of course give the game away — The Buried Giant is, I believe, more subtle in that things (ogres, dragons, warriors, boatmen) are what they are described as but can and do retain mythic and symbolic attributes.

Finally, is Ishiguro playing cat’s paw with us in this novel? I’m convinced not: he was approaching sixty when he completed it and, believe me, when in a Telegraph interview he said it was about “lost memories, love, revenge and war”, many of us of a similar age will understand what he’s referring to. The Buried Giant is set in a notional post-Arthurian world; in it memories of Roman imperialism fade, Saxons and Britons square up to each other and life is held cheap. The parallels with the last few decades of history are striking: the British Empire is remembered for its glories not its downside, the UK seems to hold its European neighbours in contempt, the inhabitants scapegoat migrants and the welfare state is crumbling.

In Ishiguro’s Dark Age Britain dragons have quasi-Roman names, an anachronistic Sir Gawain is in his last years, Grendel-like monsters threaten settlements. It’s like our own collective memories have deteriorated into a theme park fantasy world where things are falling apart while a few try unsuccessfully to remember the Good Old Days.

And through this desolate landscape walk Axl and Beatrice, Ishiguro’s notional stand-ins for Bunyan’s Christian and Christiana. Here they are looking for their long departed son, who is said to be in a neighbouring village though they have to cross differing landscapes to reach him. Axl is dimly aware of some crucial role he might have played; Beatrice is anxious, possibly dementing. They fall in with Saxons, one of whom is set on revenging himself on an offstage figure called Bannus. Gawain (a cross between Dürer’s Knight and Tenniel’s White Knight) seems to be playing a duplicitous game; an aged dragon may be responsible for the nation’s amnesia; and a cairn on top of a mountain is said to be the grave of a giant.

Love — where does love fit into all this? This, it turns out, is the root of the matter. Beatrice’s anxieties focus largely on whether a ferryman will leave her stranded while Axl crosses to the island. The issue obsesses her — “Are you still there, Axl?” she continually asks on the journey, and of course he is. Their relationship is quietly moving, and it is this that carries the punch in the tale.

Have I said enough to convince you that Ishiguro’s tale, simply told, seemingly inconsequential in its little details, is worth the effort? Only you can answer that.

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Other reviews of The Buried Giant worth reading:

1. On Weighing a Pig doesn’t Fatten it: https://schicksalgemeinschaft.wordpress.com/2017/11/03/the-buried-giant-kazuo-ishiguro-2015/

2. On

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51 thoughts on “A dark tale for a dark age

  1. I enjoyed this book very much (if enjoy is the right word to use). For me it was about dementia, fear of loneliness and death as we age. But we all see and interpret things from our own angle, influenced by the things going on and the people around us.

    What is the “point” of the book was a strange question to ask I thought! What is the point of any novel, or other book for that matter? If, as this book clearly has, the point is to expand your mind and imagination – to prompt thought, an exploration of its content – which will inevitably will be from each individual’s own angle – and then to expand that thought further through communication with others, then this book does indeed have a point and has achieved its aims.

    So what would you say is the point of a book 😀 ?

    1. Oooh, I wasn’t ready for deep philosophical musings first thing in the morning, Alastair, which is when I first picked up your comment, and now, a few hours later, my head is still hurting! But your questions requires a response, and I’ll do my best to give it a go.

      I sort of think I know what you’re saying, though I don’t think I ever precisely asked what the ‘point’ of The Buried Giant is. Ishiguro said himself what it was ‘about’ (and I quoted him) — “lost memories, love, revenge and war” — and that’s pretty close to part of your idea that it deals with dementia, fear of loneliness and of death as we age. I don’t think we’d quibble about the focus of the novel (and indeed there is more than one focus).

      When you ask what is the point of any novel, and then add that you believe that it’s “to prompt thought, an exploration of its content … and then to expand that thought further through communication,” I can’t say that I disagree with you. Indeed, as the strapline to this blog is Exploring the world of ideas through books, it’s exactly what Calmgrove aims to do. And what this review was intended to do — to prompt thought, to explore content, to expand on all that through communication.

      I’m a classical musician by training, and so I look at novels as large scale compositions. As with all creative endeavours that I encounter, I’m just as interested in the ‘how’ and ‘why’ as I am with the ‘who, what, when and where’. And so I ask how Ishiguro sets about his narrative and then why he chooses to do it that way. Thus I note that The Buried Giant has elements of parable, of historical fiction, of epic fantasy and probably a couple of other genres too that I haven’t considered. But many fans of each of these genres have proved to be very confused that Ishiguro has not chosen to go the whole hog with the expected elements from these genres. (I’ve tried to touch on these aspects in the review without being too detailed, but I could have gone on at some length about them but it would have tested readers’ patience, I fear!) My review was framed to wander around the landscape of the novel’s composition rather like Beatrice and Axl journeyed across their landscape, all in the hopes of picking up hints regarding Ishiguro’s purpose and narrative choice.

      Your final question is an even bigger point to ponder, almost as big as seeking the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything! If you google “What’s the purpose/point of a story” you’ll find no end of erudite yet expansive answers. I’ll just limit myself to saying that I think the point of a story is to tell readers or listeners something about themselves, about how they fit into the scheme of things — if indeed scheme there is. Will that do? 🙂

      1. Oh dear! Now I feel like I have attacked your post/blog but that certainly wasn’t my intention. I really like your blog and think you pitch your writing perfectly – concise but with depth. I also like Ishiguro’s work but I wasn’t meaning to put up any defence for it – I find the abstract approach he take to the literary landscape fascinating and in this respect find that I compare – no, not compare but perhaps think of in similar terms, Calvino, one of my favourite writers. I imagine you know his work?
        The answer to life, the universe and everything is, as I am sure you are well aware, 42! Good to “talk” 😄

        1. Thank you for you kind and generous appraisal, Alastair, and no offence taken — on the contrary, your comments encouraged me to clarify how I really felt about the book.

          And, yes, 42 is as complete and precise an answer to those eternal questions as any — but it won’t stop us beating around the bush any time soon, methinks!

      2. Whoops! What a mistake to make. It is not Ishiguro’s work I compare to Calvino but Murakami’s whose work I also like. I gotta lol at my blunder, otherwise I would be cringing in the corner with embarrassment 😉

  2. I really enjoyed it too, agreeing with StillWalks above. I also felt that the fantasy or supernatural elements like dragons and ogres were done brilliantly – I personally didn’t believe that they were real – in that they no longer existed, but persisted in the minds of Gawain and the others over the sort of collective forgetting that suffuses the novel otherwise.

    1. I’m sorry if I gave the impression that I didn’t enjoy it too, Annabel, because I did! I suppose I was aiming my comments at readers who hadn’t yet picked the novel to read or were considering it or had only just started it. Clearly you enjoyed it and — just glancing back at your review of it on Shiny New Books — I see you characterised it as a fable, not too far from my view of it as a modern parable of sorts.

      1. We’re at cross purposes! Didn’t mean to imply I thought you didn’t enjoy it – sorry if I gave you that impression too. It is a book that takes time to work its magic – and I with all the attention Ishiguro is getting, and now your review – I’d love to have the time to re-read this book and see if I still have the same reaction. BTW – the Durer and Tenniel knights are exactly how I pictured Gawain too.

        1. I agree that, as you put it, the book takes time to work its magic. Like you I let it lie fallow for a while (I read it on holiday in France) to try to collect my impressions of it. I shall probably reread it too at some future moment or world crisis . . .

          Tenniel’s knight sprang immediately to my mind too — I suspect the Durer image would’ve been how he saw himself! — and I paired the two pics as it’s surmised Tenniel was influenced by the woodcut.

    1. This is my first Ishiguro, Daphne, so I’ve yet to read An Artist in the Floating World, but I’ve a copy of Never Let Me Go on my shelves which I think I’ll go for next.

  3. I loved this book. For me it spoke about the inevitable loss of power that comes with aging as we, like Axl and Beatrice, move further away from the fire and our share of the light. It also raised the question, by forgetting the past do we put away old enmities, or are we just doomed to repeat them again and again? That is do our tribal memories hold us together or tear us apart?

    1. They say, don’t they, Gert, that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, and that’s certainly a major strand running through the novel. (And unfortunately, since the novel was published, we seem to be heading even faster towards that collective un-remembering of the lessons of past conflicts, those pointless power-plays that nations were foolishly led into.) I didn’t mention the motif of light — the candle, the fires in the settlements and so on — but in this evocation of the Dark Ages Ishiguro was certainly playing up the loss of enlightenment throughout the novel.

      PS I’m reminded of the story the Venerable Bede tells of the sparrow flying in at one door of a well-lit Dark Age hall and then immediately out at another, briefly safe from the weather and dark outside but then vanishing back into the dark — a metaphor of our brief life here on earth.

  4. Coincidentally the next book on my list. I’ve had it sitting on my shelves for quite some time, and that Nobleprize seemed like a good prompter. This review too, thanks!

  5. I enjoyed reading it too — in a quiet way I find rather typical of Ishiguro’s work. A lot of people complained at the time it came out that he was trying to write fantasy without it being put in the fantasy genre, but I’ve never really sorted out in my mind what I think of that. In one way, it is so very literary — but in another, the way the plot is shaped, I probably wouldn’t want to put it in the fantasy genre anyway.

    …Not sure if that made sense.

    1. I think it did make sense, Nikki — even if Ishiguro uses fantasy elements and a quest theme, by themselves they do not a fantasy make. The Buried Giant feels like a literary novel set in one of those glass globes filled with pretend snow that you shake to create a blizzard: we’re on the outside looking in and trying to connect with figures in a landscape (or in this case a dreamscape).

    1. I think that outstanding fantasy can indeed be literary, Lory; I’m still convinced that the Earthsea quartet is pure literature (despite its YA and fantasy labels), as much Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, or of course The Buried Giant. It’s just prejudice that condemns all fantasy as escapist rubbish.

      That said, I wouldn’t primarily label The Buried Giant as fantasy despite its use of fantasy elements (as I argue in a comment above).

  6. I tried to read this book shortly after it was published but found that I was struggling to engage with it and gave up halfway through. Your review makes me wonder whether I should have persevered with it. I did enjoy two of Ishiguro’s other books, though (The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go), so maybe this one just wasn’t for me.

    1. I struggled with it too, Helen — it was so slow to start with, and seemed to consist of a series of random encounters and events — but I was pleased I persevered. I think you may find it worth the effort to give it another go. 🙂

  7. I love this review and the wonderful discussions in the comments. I just got it yesterday to read for WitchWeek. Also, I liked what you said about Earthsea having just picked up A Wizard of Earthsea yesterday, too. I am on a roll 🙂

    1. Thank you, Laurie: the more I think about the novel the more I’m impressed, even affected, by it. I’ve seen Ishiguro’s writing described as”punitive blandness” and I can see that it could and does put potential readers off, but there is humanity underlying The Buried Giant (and no doubt his other work) that ultimately moves.

      And the comments. Yes, I feel privileged to have such thoughtful and sensitive readers who are prepared to engage at often very profound levels.

      I must reread the Earthsea novels — must be my third go at the original trilogy — and revisit Le Guin’s extraordinary world and its peoples.

    1. Thanks, Bart! Certainly a giant’s grave is mentioned in Chapter Two, when Beatrice tells Axl on the Great Plain to be cautious: “It’s when the path goes over where the giant is buried. To one who doesn’t know it, it’s an ordinary hill […] It’ll do us no good treading over such a grave, high noon or not.” So, yes, you are right of course (though I don’t think that the Chapter Two grave is ever mentioned again) and my opening sentence misleading!

      But I don’t think this brief mention is the same as the giant’s cairn which appears at the end of the novel. Whether or not there is supposedly a giant buried below it (the talk is of the cairn as a monument to innocents) Axl suggests that with the death of Querig and the loss of the fog of forgetting “who knows what old hatreds will loosen across the land now? Wistan predicts that “The giant, once well buried, now stirs.”

      I suppose what I was really trying to say was that the buried giant of the title (the buried giant) was the one Wistan refers to, the giant of old hatreds, of war, of armies “swollen by anger and thirst for vengeance”.

  8. I don’t find this author’s blandness to be punitive. For me, it’s always about the individual life. As you say ,it’s like that swallow’s, so briefly in the light. For Ishiguro, I think the details of an individual’s life are the building blocks for looking at what one life can mean in the context of a household (Remains of the Day), a society (Never Let Me Go) or a nation (The Buried Giant). As an American, I think the “good old days” theme applies to my country, too, which makes it an even better novel.

    1. “It’s always about the individual’s life.” Yes, I’d go with that, Jeanne, and how they fit into a wider community. (The “punitive blandness” phrase wasn’t my assessment, by the way, though I can understand why it might’be been applied.)

      I’ll be going for Never Let Me Go, I think! Another commentary on society and the individual, I gather.

  9. I’m in heaven! I found this post and then the comments! Yippee.

    Your comparison with Pilgrim’s Progress is so clever. And thanks for the questions asked and answered about this book and novels in general.

    I thought Ishiguro is similar to Calvino, and when StillWalks mentioned it was Murakami, it only left me with a stronger desire of reading something else than 1Q84 (which wasn’t a wow book for me, not what I expected.

    However, many say his Wound Up Bird book is much better, and that’s the one I’ll be reading soon.)

    To Calmgrove, you would not have tested my patience if you had written longer about Ishiguro and this book (or any of his.)

    I’m truly excited to have met those who admire and enjoy his work here in this post. To me, this book is not fantasy nor historical fiction, it’s a highly poetic and literary book. One thing I adore, it’s that Ishiguro’s books ignite and stir so much in me, specially after I finish reading them.

    Before he was picked for the Nobel price, I also wrote this at my blog, https://silviacachia.wordpress.com/2017/09/19/book-club-anyone/, desperately calling others to read with me his book The Unconsoled.

    Unfortunately I’m also asking to wait until summer. But hopefully, that helps others to make time for the book. And, StillWalks, I also toyed with the possibility of reading Murakami instead.

    I love The Remains of the Day, and Never Let Me Go, but I myself prefer the least tidy titles, and this one surprised me with one more level of departure from my comfort zone. His poetic quality is mesmerizing.

    My only complain is that the book is short. I hope he keeps writing his Buried Giant in his next novel. (I hope we have yet to see Ishiguro’s best, an author who, like Cervantes, seems very capable to write his best book yet to come as he gets older.)

    1. Thanks, Silvia, for your enthusiastic and insightful response to this review and the comments, and I’ve now had time to read a couple of your posts and their replies. I particularly liked this Ishiguro comment:
      “And what makes Ishiguro Ishiguro? His obsession with memory,  his predilection for unreliable characters, and his ways of making you feel you know yet you don’t know what you are reading about.”
      This certainly characterised this novel, and I anticipate seeing it applied to his other work!

      I’ve not read any Murakami, and of Calvino only a little more, but I’ll certainly consider The Unconsoled for next summer.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the Bunyan comparison, and now I feel guilty: to my knowledge I’ve only read a condensed version for children, and that many many years ago when I was young, so details are quite hazy; but that’s the aptest comparison I could think of. And Cervantes … but no, one classic at a time!

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