This week I’m recommending a book which has caused some consternation in literary circles – `The Buried Giant’ by Kazuo Ishiguro. It only came out a few months ago, so it’s available in hardback and as an ebook but not yet in paperback. Professional reviewers tend rigidly to divide writers into `literary authors’ and `genre authors’. They don’t like it when someone who has been labelled as a `literary author’ dabbles in different genres. It was bad enough when Ishiguro attempted something approaching Science Fiction (`Never Let Me Go’) but now that he’s written an Arthurian Fantasy the critics are either throwing up their hands in horror or pretending that, even though it contains ogres, pixies, Knights of the Round Table and a dragon,`The Buried Giant’ doesn’t really count as Fantasy. Maybe the pixies were a step too far but I hope that my readers are open-minded enough to judge the story on its own merits.
`The Buried Giant’ is set in Dark Age Britain some years after the death of King Arthur, who led the Britons to victory against the invading Saxons. Now Britons and Saxons have learned to live side by side and the country is at peace. In a small village dwell an elderly British couple known as Axl and Beatrice. Like their fellow villagers, this devoted couple are affected by a dementia-like mist of forgetfulness which it makes it impossible to remember much about the early days of their marriage and hard to keep more recent events fixed in their minds. They can’t even recall why their son lives in a different village but they feel that the time has come for them to visit him, even though the journey will be difficult and dangerous.
After a troubling encounter with a mysterious boatman, Axl and Beatrice take shelter in a Saxon village which has recently suffered an ogre-attack. A visiting Saxon warrior named Wistan kills the ogres and rescues a wounded boy but the superstitious villagers turn against the child. Axl and Beatrice agree to take the boy with them to their son’s village but first they want to consult a holy man in a mountain monastery about Beatrice’s health. Wistan rides with them because he has a mission to fulfil in the mountains but he’s forced to disguise himself as a `half-wit mute’ in order to evade the British soldiers who are hunting him. During their journey, the group meet an aged knight who seems to recognize Axl. The knight turns out to be Sir Gawain, who tells them that long ago his uncle King Arthur entrusted him with the task of slaying the fearsome local dragon, Querig.
After a fatal fight, the group reaches the monastery but it proves to be a place of dark secrets. All four travellers are soon in danger and must flee for their lives. Wistan is determined to banish the magical mist of forgetfulness that hangs over the land. Beatrice supports him because she wants to remember all the details of her family life. Axl increasingly fears the guilt that returning memories might bring. Ending the enchantment will involve more deaths. Is that a price worth paying for justice? Or will the hero accomplishing his quest cause the innocent to suffer as much as the guilty?
Some `literary authors’ are embarrassingly ignorant of genre fiction, so when they attempt Science Fiction or Fantasy it’s like watching someone re-invent the wheel. Ishiguro seems much more knowledgeable. He likes to play with a genre and transform it for his own purposes. The cloning-people-for-spare-parts plot of `Never Let Me Go’ was unoriginal and implausible and yet it was a truly haunting novel (and later, film). The plot of `The Buried Giant’ is largely put together from standard Fantasy elements whose origins aren’t hard to trace – various Arthurian Romances, parts of `Beowulf’ and a dash of Ingmar Bergman’s `The Seventh Seal’ – but the atmosphere of the novel is distinctive and disturbing. Have you ever had one of those nightmares in which you’re sure that you’ve done something terrible but can’t remember what and the guilt still lingers after you wake up? Well, reading `The Buried Giant’ is rather like re-living that nightmare.
The giant of the title may be a metaphor for buried truths but thankfully the journey of Axl and Beatrice is more than a simplistic allegory; it is a touching portrait of a long marriage and a gripping story in its own right. After a slow start, Ishiguro establishes a constant sense of menace; a feeling that something dreadful is about to happen or perhaps already has happened. If you like everything in a novel to be clearly explained as you go along, you won’t enjoy `The Buried Giant’, but if you are willing to surrender some control to the author and stumble along in a fog of ignorance, like Beatrice and Axl, there will be rewards. Usually when an author reworks traditional material, such as the legends of Arthur and his knights, it is still fairly obvious how the story will play out. That isn’t the case with `The Buried Giant’. The four leading characters constantly surprise the reader and themselves because, if you’ve lost most of your memories, how do you know what kind of person you are? Hero or terrorist? Peacemaker or betrayer? Loving spouse or cruel adulterer?
The plain, almost banal language which Ishiguro uses somehow makes the darker aspects of the story more chilling. `The Buried Giant’ is Horror fiction in the sense that it deals with the physical and emotional horrors which people inflict on each other – often in the name of a `higher good’. Like many of the best Fantasy authors, Ishiguro uses the conventions of the genre to explore challenging ideas and to ask difficult questions. Questions such as – Must everyone face death alone? Can there be true peace without justice? Is it ever right to hate a whole race because of the actions of its leaders? Does the concept of a forgiving god encourage people to forgive themselves for unforgivable sins? Should crimes be forgotten for the sake of the future? I’m sure you can see the contemporary relevance of some of these questions.
Ishiguro is on record as saying that he used a Fantasy setting for his story because he wanted to write about the eternal issues behind the politics of specific conflicts. It might have been better if he had used a freshly invented world since, putting aside the issue of whether Arthur ever existed, the conflict between the Britons and the Saxons was a very real one which still has consequences for British politics. For much of the book, Ishiguro seems to be using British characters for his villains – as so many Hollywood movies do – but he’s too good a novelist to do something so unsubtle. Just as he has made an utterly convincing case for one side being completely in the right, Ishiguro suddenly shows you the opposite side of the argument from the perspective of people he’s taught us to care about. `The Buried Giant’ doesn’t offer easy answers but I’ll never hear the phrase, `forgive and forget’ again without thinking about this novel. So, even if you usually avoid `literary novels’ you might want to give this one a go. Ishiguro even writes surprisingly good fight scenes. Until next time….