The Buried Giant.
Faber. 2015. 325 pp.
ISBN 978 0 571 31504 8.
Kazuo Ishiguro's latest novel is very much a departure from his earlier works. Set in Britain at a time after the Romans had departed and when Britons and Saxons still lived as separate communities, this story is essentially fantasy.
Axl and Beatrice are elderly Britons who set out on a journey across the desolate Great Plain to visit a son they have almost forgotten. Forgetting is a strange sickness which seems to be affecting everyone in the land, but there are hints that some things are best forgotten.
Lost memories are one of the things Ishiguro wanted to deal with in this book. He is interested, as he said in a recent Guardian interview, in how individuals, communities, societies and nations deal with memories: how they struggle with painful memories; how they remember and forget. But whether a fantasy in which ogres, pixies, dragons and geriatric knights appear is the vehicle for such weighty matters, is debatable.
Unfortunately, this is not the only difficulty Ishiguro has made for himself. Telling a story through a narrator who addresses the reader directly ("a Saxon village, viewed from a distance and a certain height would have been something more familiar to you as a village," for example) distances the action. There are jumps in the narrative, and new characters which appear suddenly but whose unexpected presence is explained only in retrospect. A few characters appear and disappear for no apparent reason, and have no apparent relationship to the story except perhaps to suggest a literary parallel, as with the innocent maiden, Edra, met carrying a hoe: a rather clumsy hint of the Norse Earth Goddess, Erda. And although his descriptions of fights are dramatic and exciting, his reported conversations with women and children are sometimes awkward and stilted.
There are hints of other literary parallels, too: of Beowulf in the marauding monsters from the lake; of the Ferryman on the River Styx; of Macbeth's witches in the sinister, ancient, bird-like hags; and of Tolkien's Smaug in the Dragon Querig. King Arthur, Merlin and Sir Gawain are also an essential part of the story, and we hear how Gawain and four others from Arthur's court once fought and conquered the dragon Querig. We assume (wrongly, it turns out) that they killed her.
Ishiguro says that he has always wanted to write about a man on a horse—the lone figure—"a man adrift in history." An elderly, rather tetchy Sir Gawain, wandering the countryside on his equally elderly horse, Horace, and dressed in rusty armour which he never seems to take off, is that man in this story. But the Giant of the title never appears, unless one assumes that this refers to the dragon, Querig.
I had no objection to fantasy or to fantastic creatures but, sadly, I did not find Ishiguro's narrator to be a compelling story-teller and I was never drawn into the tale sufficiently to make the elements of fantasy and magic acceptable.
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