Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Some of you will have fine monuments by which the living may remember the evil done to you.  Some of you will have only crude wooden crosses or painted rocks, while yet others of you must remain hidden in the shadows of history.  You are in any case part of an ancient procession, and so i is always possible the giant's cairn was erected to make the site of some such tragedy long ago when young innocents were slaughtered in war.  This aside, it is not easy to think of reasons for its standing.  One can see why on lower ground our ancestors might have wished to commemorate a victory or a king.  But why stack heavy stones to above a man's height in so high and remote a place as this?

Axl and Beatrice are old, at the end of what seems to have been a long and happy marriage.  But they are not happy in their village, so they set out to find the village where their son lives, having left long ago for reasons neither Axl or Beatrice can remember.  You see, there is a mist that hangs over Britain, a fog of forgetfulness, which separate Axl and Beatrice from much of their history.  At the fringes of their marital bliss are a number of disquieting questions: without their past, how can they be sure they really love each other?  And what is it, exactly, that everyone is trying to forget?

Ishiguro has always been interested in repression.  In Never Let Me Go, it's the way that the clones participate in their own murder and exploitation by repressing the question of whether things might be otherwise.  In The Remains of the Day, it's Stevens' refusal to recognize many truths about his life: his boss' Nazi sympathies, his father's frailty, his own deep love for Miss Kenton.  In each of those cases, Ishiguro is never glib enough to suggest that things would be better if everyone were honest with themselves; both the clones and Stevens seem to desperately need their delusions.  The truth, for Ishiguro, may set you free, but it seems just as likely to destroy you.

The same is true for Axl and Beatrice, and all the inhabitants of post-Arthurian Britain.  As their memories return, piece by piece, filled in with the help of those they meet along their journey, it becomes clear that the country was recently ravaged by war between the Saxons and the Britons.  Though Axl and Beatrice long for their memories to return so they might fully understand themselves, the lifting of the fog threatens to rekindle an old enmity:

"How right to fear it, sir," Wistan said.  "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.  For you Britons, it'll be as a ball of fire rolls towards you.  You'll flee or perish.  And country by country, this will become a new land, a Saxon land, with no more trace o your people's time here than a flock or two of sheep wandering the hills untended."

Would we be better of, Ishiguro wonders, if we were to rid ourselves of history?  Does peace require the eradication of what we remember?

These are rich and complex ideas.  But Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day succeed insofar as they rely on the accumulation of everyday detail; we believe those stories because we see reflected in them the way the minutiae of our lives can serve as a distraction from larger, deeper problems.  Ishiguro's plain prose is suited to those stories.  The Buried Giant, on the other hand, feels painted with much broader strokes.  Its characters only rarely seem like real people; rather, they read as the fantasy archetypes they are.  It is difficult to care about what Axl and Beatrice, much less all of Britain, may have repressed because The Buried Giant is not a story about repression but an allegory of repression.

Ishiguro recently got into a tiff with Ursula K. LeGuin, who accused him of not sufficiently respecting the fantasy genre.  LeGuin's charge goes too far, but it has a kernel of truth: Ishiguro seems to have no real idea of how to harness the possibilities of fantasy, or how to build a world which is specific and real.  The Buried Giant, I'm sad to say, reads exactly like what it is: a fantasy novel written by someone who never really reads fantasy novels.

And that's a shame, because it's clear that Ishiguro is developing ideas here that are part of an entire life's work.  The small, private repressions of his other novels are transformed into a national crisis, and you can see him thinking in a new way about the social, political, and historical aspects of repression.  But if he wanted to write a novel that comments on the way that repression works in the world, I'd rather have had a novel about the world as it is.

For what it's worth, Randy liked it better than I did.

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