The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
“The book you are going to write must have a well-defined target reader,” Junot Díaz said. I remember his lessons, his concepts. “You cannot write for everybody, but only for a certain, specific slice of audience. And you must know it, and respect it.” So, reading The Buried Giant, I thought of its readers and I came to the conclusion that Kazuo Ishiguro targeted highly sensitive persons only, those who have strong traits of empathy. So, my first comment is that this novel is a gem, but it requires an audience of natural empaths, who are spiritually attuned and good listeners. Moreover, they must have the spirit of a child, the ability to wonder, to be surprised, because The Buried Giant is first and foremost a tale, which superficially seems an outdated one indeed. There are ogres and dragons, in fact, magic fogs and knights, pixies and strange creatures too. But Ishiguro’s art, so complex and ultra-fine, emerges layer after layer and at the end of Axl and Beatrice’s journey (the plot is about an aged couple who decide to find a son they have not seen for years, and about their troubled voyage across a transfigured land), the meanings of the account combine. The journey, the messages, the behaviours, the deeds and uncertainties too gain depth and relief. Eventually the painting is complete and Ishiguro’s signature clear and unforgettable.
Kazuo Ishiguro is a British writer. He was born in Nagasaki, Japan, but his parents moved to the UK when he was five, in 1960. He has had four Man Booker Prize nominations, and won the 1989 award for fiction for his famous novel The Remains of the Day – a film adaptation, with the same title and starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, was highly acclaimed.
All Ishiguro’s main works represent an alternative world, something similar to reality but somehow detached and secluded, partially real. An Artist of the Floating World takes place in an unnamed Japanese city after Japan’s surrender in 1945. The Remains of the Day, set in the large country house of a lord in the time surrounding WWII, seems to destabilise Wodehouse’s model to create a sort of a Platonic idea of an English butler, an English mansion and a crystallised world. The Unconsoled takes place in an unnamed central European city. Never Let Me Go is a science fiction tale. And finally The Buried Giant, a kind of historical novel, is set in an indefinite time after King Arthur’s reign, among the villages of Britons and Saxons in the province of Britannia.
“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 wilderness. Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land …”
It is easy to link this ambience with that of The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien and also to understand that the personage of Sir Gawain (one of the main characters of the story) is taken from Tolkien’s essay Sir Gawain and the Green Knight too. But the genre of fantasy is different. Fantasy is not a goal in itself, a one-off spectacular scene but only a tool for Ishiguro to create modern characters and face universal existential problems and doubts. The account could have been set in the future, in a faraway galaxy, with strange beasts and mists and even myths, and the result would be the same. Sir Gawain too, King Arthur’s nephew, is more similar to Don Quixote than a stereotyped chevalier, and certainly Miguel de Cervantes’s lesson is well present in The Buried Giant.
But what is this story about? One can say that the healing effect of amnesia, of a historical amnesia of course, is the main message. That sometimes it is better to forget and go ahead, to leave grievances behind to avoid new atrocities. In this perspective, Axl and Beatrice’s journey from the state of ignorance – they seem to be two simple villagers without a relevant past – to a painful awareness and a dramatic conclusion is indicative.
“For in this community the past was rarely discussed. I do not mean that it was taboo. I mean that it somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marches. It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past – even the recent one.”
However, this therapeutic effect of amnesia is not Ishiguro’s final aim, for me. The story, I think, is about the essence of truth, its substance, if truth really exists. And this uncertainty, this mystery I’d say, affects the common identity, the identity of a community, of a populace for example, as well the identity of the single person.
Truth is always questioned during the development of The Buried Giant. Layer after layer, I said, because the dimension of the journey is more vertical than horizontal. Almost every fact or rather every phrase discloses a hidden level of truth, a different verity actually. The themes of memory and loss, and the doubts brought by different perspectives (so, the memories themselves may be false), draw a world of unsureness and apprehension. These latter feelings are the soundtrack of the entire novel. No relationship, not even the one between Axl and Beatrice, so strong, so wanted, will be spared.
The encounter with “a small, bird-like old woman” and with “a thin, unusually tall man” is the first relevant move of the plot. They (the old woman with a rabbit and the tall boatman) tell a controversial story, each one accusing the other. Where is the truth then? And how do you recognise it?
The discovery that truth evaporates as in a sort of conjuring trick leaves the protagonists naked. The she-dragon too, the mythological being able to spread the magical mist that obnubilate senses and memories, which never appears but at the end of the story, lies at the bottom of a dark well, its place to die. The myth is exposed just when it is going to finish. And the death of the she-dragon, which gave a reason and an identity to the main characters, changes the perspectives and the rules again. We all are children of false myths – that is Ishiguro’s message – but they are part of our identity, which is made of false memories and loss, and built on pillars of questionable truth.
The descriptions of the journey are watertight, dry and essential as is needed in a tale, but Ishiguro’s weapons are the dialogues, a monster of coherence, consequentiality and effectiveness. Once again, he impressed me with the power of his consistency, so much that I think that both The Remains of the Day and The Buried Giant must be studied specifically for their dialogues. They strictly drive the pace of the novel – and of each event of the account –, as if the plot too has to submit to the logic, time and requirements of the dialogues. And the plot itself is often designed by some revelation that occurs during a talk, and which opens new doors.
‘Sir Gawain, I beg you help me! Fierce as he is, the two of us with careful strategy might overcome him.’
‘Sir, let me remind you, I’m a knight of Arthur, no foot soldier of your Lord Brennus. I don’t take up arms against strangers on rumour or for their foreign blood. And it seems to me you’re unable to give good cause for taking against him.’
‘You force me to speak then, sir, though these are confidences to which a man of my humble rank has no right, even if Lord Brennus himself let me hear them. This man is come to this country on a mission to slay the dragon Querig. This is what brings him here!’
‘Slay Querig?’ Sir Gawain sounded genuinely dumbfounded. He strode forward from the tree and stared at Wistan as if seeing him for the first time. ‘Is this true, sir?’
My suggestion is to enjoy the tale using the enchanted spirit of a child, as I already said, and at the same time your deep intuition and sensibility to guide your reading. It is really worth it.