Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Peace Built on Buried Bones: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is his first new novel since 2005. (Photo by Francesco Guidicini)

Even so, sir, isn’t it a strange then when a man calls another brother who only yesterday slaughtered his children?
–  Master Wistan, in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant

There was a time when I used to dream about becoming a professional book reviewer – I like to think I had no illusions that it would be easy, but to make a career of reading books and helping other people decide what to read seemed very attractive. But the more that I have come to write about fiction, the more I have come to appreciate the fact that I am not a book reviewer by profession along the real privileges that come with my amateur status. I was recently made aware of those privileges when I encountered Kazuo Ishiguro’s recently published novel, The Buried Giant (Knopf, 2015).

Ishiguro is, by any measure, a major literary figure. Like other major figures, love or hate his writing, his new works immediately draw attention. He is most famous for his 1989 novel, Remains of the Day – a book that was made into a movie in 1993 and was eventually nominated for eight Academy Awards. The film, it should be noted, has become something of a touchstone of pretentiousness; it was more self-consciously British than any British drama I have ever seen, and while I enjoyed the movie I can certainly understand the criticism. As usual, and as goes without saying, film adaptations are almost always a world apart from the books that are their inspiration (the one exception to this may be the Harry Potter movies, but that is a different subject.) Ishiguro’s prose is spare, and he often writes by inference, allowing the reader to fill in gaps. He combines a contemporary style of sparse description of period settings – pre-WWII Britain, post-WWII Japan – providing a unique reading of periods that are often characterized in fiction by lavish description (the literary equivalent of the costuming on the early seasons of Mad Men.) The Buried Giant is Ishiguro’s first novel since 2005’s Never Let Me Go a novel that defied classification in many respects, though it is generally considered to be a foray into science fiction to some degree. Similarly, The Buried Giant is currently being referred to as a fantasy novel. And, unsurprisingly for a major literary figure like Ishiguro, the book (released on March 3, 2015) has already been reviewed by the New York Times, Sunday Times, and The Guardian.

After reading the book, I decided that, before writing my own, I should take a look at some of these reviews. (I’m not sure why, but it does seem like the sort of thing a reviewer is supposed to do…) I was struck immediately by the somewhat tepid response of many of them, one notable exception being Neil Gaiman’s review in The New York Times Book Review. Gaiman, himself a master of the fantasy novel that is about more than fantasy, has nothing but praise for The Buried Giant, while the majority of other reviews seem somewhat confused at Ishiguro’s newest offering. It is true that it marks something of a departure from his earlier works, in that it is set in a fully imaginary landscape, a post-Arthurian Britain torn by the conflict between Britons and Saxons. This is indeed an innovation in terms of setting – even the ‘science fiction’ of Never Let Me Go was set in a recognizable England of the 1980s. That being said, the obsession of some reviewers with this ‘departure’ seems to have prevented them from reflecting adequately on the depth of the new novel. In sum, the fantastical setting of the novel is more of a distraction for the professional reviewers than it is for this amateur at least, for whom The Buried Giant is quite simply a remarkable novel, a haunting story of war, memory, and love that brings a new level of depth to a literary setting that is often characterized primarily by nostalgia. To be concerned about its genre, or its place in the author’s literary corpus, is to be sidetracked from a brilliantly written and astonishingly relevant tale.

The Buried Giant is set in post-Arthurian England, a world where we are initially led to believe that Britons and Saxons have finally been reconciled to one another and, through the diplomatic and military legacy of Arthur and Merlin, live in peace. Over the course of the novel the reader comes to understand the precariousness of such peace and the lies on which it is based. That peace may required dishonesty and lies is one of the most striking themes of the book, and one that is particularly relevant to our own day and age. In The Buried Giant, peace can only be based upon forgetting and the loss of memory: forgetting of injustice and atrocities, the forgetting of murder and rape and death that are a part of every conflict. Arthur, it turns out, was incapable of living up to his own ideals of just war, and in order to bring peace he not only had to violate his own promises but also had to make both Britons and Saxons forget that violation. Peace, it turns out, required a particular effort of forgetting. But forgetfulness it seems cannot be carefully focused – when Merlin lays the mist of forgetfulness upon the population, they forget not only their desire for vengeance and the reasons for that desire, but also their families and histories. The mist is eventually raised by our two main characters, Axl and Beatrice, who are searching for their son and who are constantly bothered by the forgetfulness that they observe in others and themselves. Why, they ask each other, can they not remember exactly why their son went away? Why, when they are so devoted to each other, is their history together so dim? In their quest to regain those memories, they meet up with the legendary Arthurian Briton Sir Gawain, the Saxon knight Wistan (who has not lost his desire for vengeance in the mists of forgetfulness), and a young Saxon seemingly destined to become a warrior fighting in a world that has remembered the need for revenge.

Axl and Beatrice are deeply sympathetic characters (another characteristic of Ishiguro’s novels is his depiction of narrators and characters who readers come to love despite their flaws). Their devotion to one another is remarkable, and even when they begin to suspect that the resurrection of their memories will force them to remember dark corners of their own relationship that devotion remains unshaken – perhaps one of the most moving moments of their relationship is their promise to one another that whatever they remember they will not veer from the joy that they have come to take in one another.

And yet, at the end of The Buried Giant, we are left questioning whether such a devoted relationship can really exist in the absence of life-long memory, and whether conscious disregard of the past can be anything other than a fiction that we tell each other. The curtain closes as Britons and Saxons are about to resume full and all-out hostilities – as our Saxon knight says, “The giant, 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.”

Mirroring the on-coming violence that is soon to sweep Britain is the end of the story of Axl and Beatrice, whose relationship to one another, founded in both forgetfulness and true devotion, is still subject to judgment from outside. They may never waver in their love for one another, but Ishiguro leads us to question the real value and longevity of blind devotion, and of blind peace. It is a story that Ishiguro sets seamlessly in a mythical past, with lessons for our all-too-real present.

Jessica L. Radin is a graduate student living and working in Toronto, where she teaches, works on her dissertation, and reads everything she can get her hands on.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review, thoughtful and informative. And like all the other reviews I've read of The Buried Giant, it makes me want to read the book.