“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 how we will refer to them…. Our elderly couple lived within [a] sprawling warren—“building” would be too grand a word—with roughly sixty other villagers…. I am sorry to paint such a picture of our country at that time, but there you are.
Elsewhere the authorial voice, with its ease of omniscience qualified by a distinct national identity, suggests the slightly formal, bland voice-over of a travelogue: “The view before them that morning may not have differed so greatly from one to be had from the high windows of an English country house today.” It is particularly attentive to descriptions of a generic sort: “Once inside [the building], you would not have thought this longhouse so different from the sort of rustic canteen many of you will have experienced in one institution or another.” And there is a more self-consciously elevated authorial voice, a nudge in the reader’s ribs that is both jarring and perplexing:
Some of you will remember the fine monuments by which the living may remember the evil done to you. Some of you will have only crude wooden crosses or painted rocks, while yet others of you must remain hidden in the shadows of history. You are in any case part of an ancient procession, and so it is possible the giant’s cairn [the hill with the allegedly buried figure] was erected to mark the site of some such tragedy long ago when young innocents were slaughtered in war…. One can see why on lower ground our ancestors might have wished to commemorate victory or a king.
Here, in this not entirely coherent passage, the narrator seems to be addressing a distinct “you”—an invisible and anonymous reader who is English, and part of an “ancient procession” that can be traced back to sixth-century England or earlier. (Ironically excluding Kazuo Ishiguro, born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954 and brought to England at the age of five.)
The curiously chatty, just perceptibly condescending narrative voice is an unfortunate distraction from what is an already somewhat enervated and overfamiliar fantasy of the kind known in publishing circles as “sword-and-sorcery”—a subgenre of fantasy that includes ogres, giants, dragons, knights, warriors, pilgrimages, and “quests.” It is a subgenre in which the most acclaimed classic work is J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythopoetic epic The Lord of the Rings and the most popular, and controversial, contemporary work is George R.R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire (both in book form and in the much-acclaimed HBO series Game of Thrones). Tolkien is essentially a Christian writer ideally read in adolescence or childhood; Martin’s dark, highly sexualized themes are fiercely adult, and not easily classifiable.
By contrast, Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is a more conventional generic work of fantasy fiction. There are naively innocent pilgrims embarked upon a quest through dangerous terrain; mysterious boatmen who may or may not be “good” in their dealings with the innocent; soldiers and swordsmen who are sometimes helpful, and sometimes threatening to the elderly couple. There are monks who plot to help them, or plot to hurt them; there are pixies, sprites, ogres, and a she-dragon named Querig responsible for the “mist of forgetfulness” that lies upon the land like a toxic fog; there is a kindly “medicine woman” and there is a noble warrior named Wistan whose bearing “set him apart from those around him…. ‘No matter that he tries to pass himself off as an ordinary Saxon.’”
Destined to supplant Wistan is a troubled youth (Edwin), about whom it is said that “a fierce future now opens before him”—a youth who has been ostracized by his own villagers because they suspect that he has been bitten by a dragon, whose infectious bite will have disastrous consequences: “Now the desire will be rising in his blood to seek congress with a she-dragon. And in turn, any she-dragon near enough to scent him will come seeking him.”
Most surprisingly amid this cast of characters there appears the elderly Sir Gawain, an attenuated survivor of King Arthur’s Round Table whose sword and “creaking” armor have grown rusted with decades, or perhaps it has been centuries; we first see Gawain as a seriocomic figure, resembling the affably senile White Knight in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, with “two metal legs stuck out stiffly onto the grass in a childlike way”; he has a face that is “kindly and creased”; his armor is “frayed and rusted, though no doubt he had done all he could to preserve it. His tunic, once white, showed repeated mending.” In post-Arthurian England the once-noble knight has become a garrulous buffoon:
Come forth, friends!… No harm will come to you! I’m a knight and a Briton too. Armed, it’s true, but come closer and you’ll see I’m just a whiskery old fool. This sword and armour I carry only out of duty to my king, the great and beloved Arthur, now many years in heaven….
Elderly Sir Gawain flies into a blustering rage when it’s suggested that a younger man should kill the she-dragon Querig, since Gawain has not been able to kill her for decades: “By what right…does your king order you to come from another country and usurp the duties given to a knight of Arthur?” When Gawain boasts of having faced “wolves with the heads of hideous hags…and at Mount Culwich, double-headed ogres that spewed blood at you even as they roared their battlecry,” and undertakes an ill-advised sword fight with the young warrior Wistan, which (predictably) he loses, it is hard to resist recalling the solemn absurdities of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Amnesia, partial or total, has been a prevailing theme in Ishiguro’s fiction: the brooding, Kafkaesque When We Were Orphans (2000) is narrated by an allegedly celebrated detective named Christopher Banks whose move to England from Shanghai as a young child has permanently unsettled him, as the mysterious loss of both his parents at an even younger age has come to dominate his life, leaving him paralyzed as an adult, deeply repressed and but vaguely aware of how selective his memory is. The yet more Kafkaesque The Unconsoled (1995) is told from the point of view of an allegedly famous pianist named Ryder who arrives at a European city to perform a concert but discovers that most of his memory has vanished.
In The Remains of the Day the butler-protagonist Stevens represses memory, or denies the significance of what he knows, like the narrator of Never Let Me Go, Kathy, a clone whose fate is to provide organs for her “normal” and whose strategy for survival is to try to deny the inevitability of this fate. In The Buried Giant, the elderly Axl and Beatrice are afflicted with a form of feeblemindedness that damages their memories, their sagacity, and their ability to reason and to speak. Nearly everyone suffers a diminution of memory in this primitive culture in which there seems to be no written language, thus no history: “God himself had forgotten much from our pasts.”
It is a challenge to follow the adventures of the Briton couple, who speak a stilted, quasi-formal English, like characters in a storybook for children; as a sort of dual protagonist, a husband and wife whose wish is not to be separated from each other, the couple are among Ishiguro’s most pallid fictional characters. They are functions of a superficially busy plot meant to be kept at a boil but essentially static beneath. Indeed, their love is based not upon shared memories but forgetfulness and denial: “Could it be our love would never have grown so strong down the years had the mist not robbed us the way it did? Perhaps it allowed old wounds to heal.” A wise woman asks Beatrice: “How will you and your husband prove your love for each other when you can’t remember the past you’ve shared?” After the ritual killing of the she-dragon whose breath has assured “forgetfulness”—and the ignorance and solace of not knowing history—the novel ends on an irresolute note as Axl and Beatrice decide to risk permanent separation after all, by agreeing to the demands of a mysterious boatman who insists that he can ferry them to an island only singly, and not together.
Amid much that is generic and blurred there are small, sharply observed marvels in The Buried Giant. On a river, Axl sees a sudden flood of pixies rapacious as piranhas swarming over a woman:
A sound made him turn, and he saw at the other end of the boat…the old woman slumped against the bow with pixies—too many to count—swarming over her. At first glance she looked contented, as if being smothered in affection, while the small, scrawny creatures ran through her rags and over her face and shoulders. And now there came more and more out of the river, climbing over the rim of the boat.
The heroic warrior Wistan dispatches a fierce beast:
They might have been gazing at a large skinned animal: an opaque membrane, like the lining of a sheep’s stomach, was stretched tightly over the sinews and joints. Swathed as it was now in moonshadow, the beast appeared roughly the size and shape of a bull, but its head was distinctly wolf-like and of a darker hue…. The jaws were massive, the eyes reptilian.
A half-dead ogre is glimpsed in a muddy ditch: “A large hairless head revolved slowly in the slime, a gaping eye moving with it. Then the mud sucked greedily and the head vanished.” Finally seen in her lair, the she-dragon Querig is no figure of terror after all:
As for the dragon, it was hardly clear at first she was alive. Her posture—prone, head twisted to one side, limbs outspread—might easily have resulted from her corpse being hurled into the pit from a height. In fact it took a moment to ascertain this was a dragon at all: she was so emaciated she looked more some worm-like reptile…in the process of dehydrating…. The remnants of her wings were sagging folds of skin that a careless glance might have taken for dead leaves accumulated to either side of her. The head being turned against the grey pebbles, Axl could see only the one eye, which was hooded in the manner of a turtle’s, and which opened and closed lethargically….
Gawain explains: “She simply grows old, sir, as we all must do. But she still breathes, and so Merlin’s work lingers.”
The Buried Giant is a novel of ideas in the awkward guise of a picaresque adventure tale, as Never Let Me Go is a boldly imagined novel of ideas in the guise of a science-fiction novel, and When We Were Orphans is a less satisfying novel of ideas in the guise of a detective novel. In this awkwardness it is not unlike similar idea-driven recent novels by such accomplished writers as Jim Crace (The Pesthouse, 2007) and J.M. Coetzee (The Childhood of Jesus, 2013), set in unconvincingly imagined postapocalyptic or alternative-world universes in which, to the dismay of readers accustomed to the writers’ usual prose, a kind of faux-naiveté prevails, and characters speak and behave with exasperating simplicity, as if some sort of diminution of intelligence comes inevitably with “genre.”
(Notable exceptions are Margaret Atwood, an experienced voyager in science-fiction dystopia, and Cormac McCarthy, whose richly bizarre, Byzantine prose adjusts perfectly to a dystopian future-set novel like The Road. Whether Doris Lessing’s “space fiction” is a lesser accomplishment than the mainstream, realistic fiction for which she is best known is a debatable subject; many if not most of Lessing’s mainstream readers claim to be unable to read her “space fiction.”)
The concluding several chapters of The Buried Giant are by far the most engaging. Caught up in a single, suspenseful interlude, Axl and Beatrice behave more convincingly, and we are moved by their plight. The Saxon warrior Wistan announces that his slaughter of the she-dragon Querig has not been altruistic but has an ulterior, political motive: the unleashing of a new era of race-hatred and vengeance. As a general amnesia prevailed in the land, Saxons and Britons could live side by side in peace, since each side had forgotten the excesses of the other; but now, Wistan proclaims a terrible prophecy:
The giant [of war], once well buried, now stirs. When soon he rises, as surely he will, the friendly bonds between us will prove as knots young girls make with the stems of small flowers. Men will burn their neighbours’ houses by night. Hang children from trees at dawn. The rivers will stink with corpses bloated from their days of voyaging. And even as they move on, our armies will grow larger, swollen by anger and thirst for vengeance. For you Britons, it’ll be as a ball of fire rolls towards you. You’ll flee or perish. And country by country, this will become a new land, a Saxon land, with no more trace of your people’s time here….
We are made to think of Bosnia, of Rwanda, parts of India, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria in which, stirred by sectarian leaders, ethnic minorities are set upon by the neighbors with whom they’d been living peacefully for years. In an echo of post–September 11 US foreign policy there is a reasoned defense of the slaughter of civilians, including children, as in a preemptive strike:
Think, sir. Those small Saxon boys you lament would soon have become warriors burning to avenge their fathers fallen today. The small girls soon bearing more in their wombs, and this circle of slaughter would never be broken. Look how deep runs the lust for vengeance!
Will the elderly Briton couple Axl and Beatrice survive the devastation to come? As their friend and companion Wistan is a Saxon warrior, he will not be able to protect them; the most he can do is extend to them the grimmest of good wishes that, if they flee at once, they “may yet keep ahead of the slaughter.”