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.
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/