“Could they perform the task more slowly were they painted figures in a picture?” This authorial comment, in the concluding pages of Kazuo Ishiguro’s enigmatic new novel, is an acknowledgment of both the extraordinarily slow pace of The Buried Giant and its highly stylized, artificial tone. The book is set in post-Roman England at a time when the shadow of King Arthur “still falls across the land,” and Christianity seems very tentatively to have been established among Britons and Saxons. The Buried Giant is not strong in historical verisimilitude; its characters are so thinly drawn as to suggest figures in an ancient tapestry, or in an allegorical fable like Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas.
With the first paragraph Ishiguro strikes a note of postmodernist detachment, establishing a distance between reader and text; we are aware throughout the novel of a narrative self-consciously narrated, in contrast to the seeming artlessness of the first-person voices of Ishiguro’s most notable previous novels, The Remains of the Day (1989) and Never Let Me Go (2005). Here, (contemporary) reader and (contemporary) author are conjoined as in a tourist’s overview of sixth-century England:
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 the wilderness. Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land. The people who lived nearby—one wonders what desperation led them to settle in such gloomy spots—might well have feared these creatures, whose panting breaths could be heard long before their deformed figures emerged from the mist….
In any case, ogres were not so bad provided one did not provoke them.
Introduced into the narrative with playful matter-of-factness, “ogres” have virtually no part in The Buried Giant, and the “buried giant” turns out to be a metaphor.
The Buried Giant is a coolly orchestrated text in which ideas about human nature, human memory, and the vicissitudes of a war-tormented history constitute the essential drama; it is not a book essentially about the experiences of hapless Briton and Saxon characters as they are moved about the landscape like chess pieces in a game beyond their comprehension. There is a John Barthian bluffness to our introduction to the elderly Briton couple whose quixotic quest to visit their long-departed son constitutes the basic plot of the novel:
In one such area on the edge of a vast bog, in the shadow of some jagged hills, lived an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice. Perhaps these were not their exact or full names, but for ease, this is…
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