Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The stranger thought it might be God himself had forgotten much from our pasts, events far distant, events of the same day.  And if a thing is not in God's mind, then what chance of it remaining in those of mortal men?

This novel starts curiously, with Axl deciding he will finally agree to go on a long planned journey with his wife, Beatrice.  However, he can't remember why they want to go on this journey, how long they have planned it, or why he suddenly feels compelled to agree to it.  As the first chapter proceeds, the reader learns of something that is bothering Axl: the fact the people in the village, himself and his wife included, cannot seem to remember things.

As the novel proceeds, it becomes clear that this affliction is affecting everyone.  People have trouble remembering anything, whether from the same day or week or month.  Not everyone is affected as severely as others, but, you know, it's weird.

Axl and Beatrice depart.  During their journey, they encounter two knights, both set on killing a dragon around since the time of Arthur.  We later learn that the affliction of memory loss is caused by this dragon.

The novel mixes the best of two worlds: the best of Ishiguro's writing with its subtle subversion between characters, whose reliability we cannot trust, and classic elements of fantasy tales, knights, plagues, ogres, and even sprites.  For that reason alone, I'd recommend this novel.

Nonetheless, reviews of this novel have been mixed.  See here (the novel "points everywhere but at us, because its fictional setting is feeble, mythically remote, generic, and pressureless; and because its allegory manages somehow to be at once too literal and too vague---a magic rare but unwelcome.") and here ("a novel that's easy to admire, to respect and to enjoy, but difficult to love.").  I understand the negative reviews but disagree with them.

The memory loss serves to make literal something Ishiguro does in Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go: unreliable narrators.  Here, because the protagonists suffer from memory loss, it's difficult for the reader to trust them; nor can the characters trust themselves.  And, while some of the reviews seemed critical of this, I felt it served to expose that which Ishiguro hides in his other novels, allowing him (and the readers) to focus on everything else going on.  More importantly, it allows the reader to focus on the consequences of this lack of reliability: what does it mean that the characters cannot trust their own reliability?  Put differently: taking lack or reliability as granted, and not focusing too much on it, what does that lack of reliability mean for people?

For example, in a story that is similar to Never Let Me Go, Axl and Beatrice encounter an old lady who hates a boatman.  The boatman, she alleges, told her that she and her love would be taken to this mystical island.  Anyone on the island only ever encounters himself, alone; in rare cases, however, two people who have proven their love for one another may experience the island together.  The old lady is bitter because the boatman promised to take her and her love to the island together, but then only took her love, leaving her stranded on land.  The lady asks them, "How will you and your husband prove your love for each other when you can't remember the past you've shared?"

Later, Beatrice and Axl take comfort in the fact that, although they cannot remember their past, they know how their story ends: they are together and in love.  But as the slaying of the dragon gets closer and closer, they begin to lose faith: what if they did something to each other in the past so horrible they can't love each other?

This theme, the theme of being uncertain about whether they want to access the past is paralleled by the historical context of their world: they live in a world of peace after war, but no one remembers how the war ended or why they have peace now.

The critics who disliked the novel faulted it for lacking any allegorical meaning.  That is, because the novel (allegedly) screams that it's an allegory, it should end in a way making the allegory clear.  I disagree that it's necessary to read the novel as an allegory; I feel the novel stands on its own without a deeper, heavier meaning.  That said, I think Ishiguro succeeds in giving the novel an allegorical meaning, but as in Never Let Me Go or Remains of the Day, it is complicated and subtle.  If I had to try to summarize it, it would be something like: although it is reasonable to be apprehensive about the past, we cannot ignore it.  Even in the world of forgetting, the characters are driven to go on this journey, despite not understanding its historical necessity.  But, like Never Let Me Go or Remains of the Day, I feel like there's more going on.

Highly recommended.  Especially so for anyone into fantasy.  Also, of his novels, I would recommend this one to a person with less literary tastes: the action of the novel lends itself to a pop audience.  Also recommended to anyone who literary novels or Ishiguro (though this last recommendation is the most controversial of the set)


The Great Catsby said...

Really can't wait to pick this one up. And such a gorgeous cover. Nice review!

Christopher said...

The book itself is a great object. The edges of the pages are not only beveled, but dyed black. It makes you wonder whether book covers are becoming more ornate in the face of e-readers.