Previously published in Dawn Books & Authors.
Master craftsman Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in a decade, The Buried Giant is the story of an elderly 6th century couple that is on a journey to find their son. It is a story told by an unnamed narrator, who frequently refers to himself/herself in the first person but doesn’t reveal his/her identity until the very end. It is a story about memory, identity and loss — but then, aren’t many of Ishiguro’s stories about memory, identity and loss? The Buried Giant, however, stands out from the rest because of its fantasy elements: yes, there are dragons…sort of.
Axl and Beatrice live in a warren-like village built into a hill, in post-Arthurian southern England “not much beyond the Iron Age”. They seem to be slight outcasts, living on the edge of the village, most exposed to the cold and not even allowed a candle. And while they seem to be devoted to each other, they are unable to access their long-term memories. In fact, no one seems to be able to remember much even in the short term. When a young child goes missing from the village it is within just a few hours that even the child’s mother has forgotten about her. How or why Axl and Beatrice are managing to remember these things, though is a mystery, but both seem to be growing aware that something is wrong. Then Beatrice meets a “strange woman in dark rags” near the village, who tells her of a river where only one half of a couple is allowed to cross, unless they are able to prove their love for each other to the boatman: “How will you and your husband prove your love for each other when you can’t remember the past you’ve shared?” she asks Beatrice, explaining that this land has been “cursed with a mist of forgetfulness”.
Eventually, it is understood that the breath of the dragon Querig is what creates this mist but all in all, it seems a rather selective amnesia: Axl and Beatrice can’t recall much of their past but they know each other well, they love each other deeply, they don’t forget their village or the various people within it, and yet they can’t even recall their son’s face or why he left home. What they do seem to forget is how often they’ve had a certain conversation, because the dialogue between them is tedious and repetitive, going beyond what may have been intended to be a tender connection between an elderly married couple. They decide to set off on a journey to what they believe is their son’s village, where he must be waiting to welcome them. How or why they have reached this conclusion is uncertain.
And so The Buried Giant turns into a quest. They have a quest that much is certain, but it is vague, changing and even then boring. In fact, how do they even manage to remember they are going to find their son? They seem to forget a great deal (judging from the absurdly repetitive conversations) and yet they never forget where they are headed or the smaller goals they must achieve along the way. This selective amnesia is too convenient a plot ploy and a massive test for any reader’s suspension of disbelief.
In his first novel in a decade, Kazuo Ishiguro uses elements of drama and fantasy but his storytelling leaves much to be desired
Axl and Beatrice take off through a fairly desolate, vast landscape bearing the marks of a possible recent war and dotted with a few small villages. There are many long roads, large distances between groups of people and a great deal of exposure to the elements. Other than a few (very few) intriguing scenes, it’s not terribly exciting, though their final destination is pushed further away by the introduction of smaller goals they must achieve along the way. Beatrice has a strange pain she must show a healer, a learned monk must tell them how to regain the memories of their youth (though they fear they may not be able to live with what they remember), a warrior they meet must slay the dragon whose breath “fills this land and robs [them] of memories” and a young boy must be led to safety. It is not unlike an Arthurian quest fantasy: in fact, one of the main characters in this novel is Sir Gawain, Arthur’s nephew and favoured knight, whom we meet when he desperately clings with chivalric loyalty to the last quest he was given, though he is old and often bumbling. All this somehow manages to be quite a tedious slog.
That Ishiguro writes beautifully need not be said; that he manages to somehow make reading The Buried Giant a real task, does. The dialogue is strangely stilted, perhaps to sound like formal Arthurian speech? The story itself may have plenty in it to be read into and analysed, but the voice Ishiguro employs isn’t arresting. Is it because Ishiguro never truly immerses himself into the genre he’s using elements of? While Never Let Me Go had the soul of a true science fiction dystopia and Remains of the Day was a pitch-perfect period drama, The Buried Giant lurks in some indefinable grey area. There are many superb genre-bending or genre-mixing novels out there, but this isn’t one of them.
In an odd, almost unconnected scene, a young boy rescued by the warrior but hunted by his village is told by his mother to turn a big wheel, “go round and round the wagon, because you’re the mule tethered to the big wheel”. “Why must I turn the wheel, mother?’ he asks. She replies, “Because you’re the mule, Edwin”. Sometimes, reading The Buried Giant makes you feel like you’re the mule.
Admittedly, there are some strange, wonderful, frightening scenes that stand out in the story, instances where you realise just what this novel could have been, had it been leaner, meaner and unfettered by its ubiquitous attempts to deal with weighty matters metaphorically. But these scenes do not appear often enough and are unable to pull everything together. A woman sits and stares at a man as they both shelter from the rain, holding a knife to the throat of the rabbit she clutches; Axl sees a serpent slide out from under a murdered man, a serpent that parts “in two around a clump of thistle, as a stream might part around a rock, before becoming one again and continuing ever closer”; an old woman crouches in a boat as she is attacked by small, fleshy creatures; an ogre lies part-buried in a ditch, sinking slowly, killed by a goat fed poisonous leaves; a wooden shack in a monastery contains manacles and a blackened iron mask, with no eye holes. There are numerous such elements of high drama and fantasy, but none which can do more than peak interest for those few paragraphs. They don’t follow through on their promise and aren’t able to sustain whatever atmosphere Ishiguro set out for them to supply.
There’s been much debate on whether The Buried Giant is fantasy or not, whether it’s allegory or metaphor or just straight up set in a world where ogres and dragons exist. It doesn’t really matter because if this is a fantasy novel, it is a bad fantasy novel. If it is a highfalutin literary allegory, it isn’t really working either. This isn’t Ursula Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From the Omelas — in fact, Le Guin has publicly taken Ishiguro to task on his fear that readers will assume The Buried Giant is fantasy, causing him to then step up in defence of the genre.
The thing is, fantasy as a genre doesn’t need defending, it never has. It’s the basis on which we build all our stories, all our fictions. Each story told, each world created, every instance is magic: it’s all something every person in the world is raised on. What else is faith, if not a sort of magic? What else is belief in greatness, in goodness, in heroes and saviours and light against the darkness and the despair of human life, if not a sort of magic? Fantasy doesn’t need defending, it’s been what’s stood strong and protected and nurtured imagination for as long as humankind has told stories. Fantasy is what allows us to be more than what our physical reality insists we remain.
Did Ishiguro need to use fantasy elements or motifs to tell this story? Of course not, and it’s not clear why he chose to. Ishiguro may well be, as he claims, on the side of the dragons, but the dragons aren’t on his side. The dragons, with their magnificence, their ferocity, their great scale and poetry and fire appear to have better stories to be in than this one.