The Buried Giant had been lying on my TBR for more than a year, and Ishiguro winning the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature prompted me to pick it up from the pile. The Swedish Academy issued a very short press release on October 5th, saying no more than Kazuo Ishigoru to be an author “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”.
There are two important elements in that statement, the personal and the political, and I’ll get back to them in a moment. First, some basics on the book, and a rumination on intertextuality.
The Buried Giant is the seventh novel of Ishiguro, published 10 years after his previous book, Never Let Me Go. In the decade in between, he wrote a short story collection with 5 stories and worked on lyrics for Stacey Kent. He was also involved in the film adaptation of Never Let Me Go. I’m not saying Ishiguro is a slacker. On the contrary: this book doesn’t feel like a rushed product to satisfy the publisher or the market. He wrote a first version, wasn’t satisfied, and only after some time returned to it again, starting all over. That shows: the prose is excellent – not necessarily poetic as one might expect from ‘literary’ fiction, but simply on point and fitting. (See the first paragraphs of my review of Central Station for my thoughts on the speculative fiction-literature division.)
The Buried Giant is – atypical for Ishiguro – a fantasy story, set in a post-Arthurian Britain, 6th century or so, about an elderly couple that sets out on a journey to the village of their lost son. The landscape is sparsely mythological, featuring a dragon, a dash of pixies, an ogre here and there. There’s magic at work too: people don’t remember much, and the elderly husband and wife only barely remember their son.
You don’t need to be an Arthurian scholar to appreciate this story. Gawain pops up, but it’s a geriatric version of that knight, and he wouldn’t be out of place in a Monty Python sketch. There’s a few references to Arthur himself, and Merlin too, but that’s it, and their roles in this story are made crystal clear. No need for Wikipedia.
There’s a tendency of readers to think of all serious literature as a puzzle, and who can blame them? The New Testament is full of references to the Old Testament, and both modernists’ as postmodernists’ favorite device seemed to be intertextual allusion. I don’t care much for that aspect of writing anymore: the depth that’s supposedly added that way is often just surface level depth, make-up that adds a thin layer only. If a story needs more than itself to make its case, it’s probably weak. I’m all for books being self-contained.
Back in the days, when everybody had indeed read the same stuff, it must have worked. But those days are long gone, more and more books are being published every year, and a writer simply can’t suppose his or her readers to have read it all, not even what passes for the canon. And what of all those movies, series & songs out there? Hypertext novels once seemed a promising solution, but a more important side-effect of our 21st century, mushrooming culture is that its ungraspable vastness makes clear what intertextuality often actually is: intellectual bragging and/or inconsequential fun. Not all that different from the namedropping Silverberg poked fun at in Dying Inside.
It’s sad that I’ve read readers comment on The Buried Giant not feeling fully apt to understand it. People play their own opinions down – I’m not sure I got everything out of it as I’m not well versed in Arthurian lore. I’m pretty sure Ishiguro would find that sad too, so let’s not talk of Arthur any longer, and let me repeat: you can enjoy this book regardless of your scholarly status, and there’s nothing wrong with treating the occasional reference as just that: occasional, a supplementary gimmick, not relevant to the core of the story.
The Nobel Prize Academy praised Ishiguro for two things: his emotional force, and the fact that he disenchants our illusions about our connections to the world.
The emotional impact of The Buried Giant is, like all books, partly in the eye of the beholder. The main emotional focus is on the love between Axl and Beatrice, the elderly protagonists.
I felt the first 50 and the final 100 pages to work best emotionally. That leaves for a wasteland of about 200 pages. It is maybe no coincidence these best parts feature a narrator that’s clearly present. The tone in the beginning of the book is determined by an omniscient narrator that makes his presence felt, using lots of modal verbs, fittingly very English, and not unlike Susanna Clarke. Throughout the book this voice takes a backseat and disappears, but so does the emotional connection I had with the characters. It’s not the only reason for that fact, but the sympathetic narrator managed to evoke sympathy indeed, and as this narrative mode wanned Axl & Beatrice seemingly became stock characters in story that started to drag occasionally. Tone is important.
The last chapter is told in first person, by one of the characters, similarly using questions and modal phrases to ponder his own and the other characters’ actions. It is this chapter that packs the greatest emotional punch, and the one that generated lines like the one in USA Today‘s review: “A literary tour de force so unassuming that you don’t realize until the last page that you’re reading a masterpiece.”
Aside from love, the other emotional component is that of getting older, withering away, dying, possibly the care for a partner with dementia as well. Obviously these two components are entwined.
I have to say as a book about a long-lasting relationship, The Buried Giant really works. Yet I feel the drag in the middle part doesn’t do this part of the story justice, and it’s as if Ishiguro couldn’t find the perfect balance between the adventure story, the political musings about memory & violence, and the portrait of love.
On top of that, here and there the book’s stitches show, and The Buried Giant feels more like a succession of – at times Gene Wolfish – short stories, rather than one story. This is due to the nature of the overarching tale: a quest, yes, traveling from place to place, which enforces this episodic nature. An understandable choice of Ishiguro, and one that generally keeps things varied, but a bit at the expense of emotional development too.
There’s only two or maybe three instances I truly felt Ishiguro had something insightful to offer, a perspective on love I hadn’t previously thought about as such, and I guess, all things considered, including the great ending, that’s more than most books do.
It’s clear Ishiguro takes a rather biological, material stand on love: shared memories aren’t really necessary to love one another, and the physical act of being together (not only, not even primarily, in the sexual way) is what counts. A collective past, a shared life’s story, is obviously a nice bonus, but I think I agree, for what is a couple? Two people that are, literally, together. The final page of the novel only reinforces that notion.
The other ingredient of this book is quite heavy-handed. Ishiguro “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”, read the Nobel Prize press release. The particular illusion The Buried Giant is about, is our relation with the pasts of violence on a state (or tribe) level. “A profound meditation on trauma, memory, and the collective lies nations and groups create to expiate their guilt”, wrote The Boston Globe. How we cope with war, in short.
Technically, Ishiguro’s execution is perfect. Just as Christopher Nolan’s movie Memento, the novel’s structural choices make us readers experience first hand what it feels like to not know what went before, and the result often is indeed a dreamlike affair, as other reviewers have pointed out.
The fact that this book is also about forgetting war is no real spoiler, as Ishiguro was quite straightforward about the novel’s content in an interview with The Guardian, published a bit before its publication.
“What are the main mechanisms by which a country like Britain or France or Japan remembers? Is it by means of the literature, is it by means of museums, is it official history books? What is it? It’s some mixture of all those things, but in the end it comes down to what ordinary people actually have in their heads about what happened in their country,”
In the same interview, Alex Clark – the journalist – continues quoting Ishiguro, coupled with paraphrase:
Along with the rest of the world, [Ishiguro] had watched as Yugoslavia disintegrated, and as genocide claimed at least 800,000 lives in Rwanda; (…) “you had concentration camps, death camps, massacres like Srebrenica, right in the middle of Europe. And the astonishing thing then – and I suppose looking back it shouldn’t have been so astonishing – was the fact that people, neighbours who’d been living with each other for decades, just turned on each other and massacred each other. (…) And these were people who’d been eating in each other’s houses, and looking after each other’s children.”
He is interested, too, in how countries such as Rwanda and South Africa are able to move on from such widespread violence and trauma. “To some extent,” he notes, “you’ve got to abandon justice and grievance to break the cycle of violence.”
But also feeding into Ishiguro’s thought processes were examples of a collective reaction to trauma from further back. Japan in the immediate aftermath of the second world war gave him the setting for his first two novels; he has clearly been long preoccupied by what he calls the country’s “really strange version” of what happened during the conflict: “Japan as a nation wiped out the fact that they were aggressors in the second world war and that they rampaged through a lot of China and east Asia slaughtering people. Most people in Japan remember the second world war as a great tragedy which climaxed with two atomic bombs.”
Yet I’m not sure whether this is a “profound explanation”. Ishiguro says more interesting things about it in the interview, than in the entire novel. Just as the title’s buried giant is a metaphor that gets a clear explanation, the novel’s content is rather easy, the questions it asks rather straightforward.
In short, it boils down to this:
- Revenge for past slaughter is a powerful driving force for new conflicts.
- Better to forget?
- Maybe, forgetting doesn’t really do justice to the past victims.
That’s about it. I find this to be rather trivial, especially since Ishiguro does not answer the question. Both sides in conflicts tend to play down their role, and nobody likes the true horrors of war and violent death in detail in their newspapers – it’s not rocket science.
Questions about how the shaping of a collective memory works simply are not explored in the novel, not at all. Those who, on account of that Guardian interview would look for deep sociological or psychological insights on the matter in the novel, will not find any.
As such, the simple, magical forgetting in Ishiguro’s medieval Britain is a rather thin metaphor, explaining nothing, exploring nothing. A meditation, maybe, but not a productive one, one that just scratches the surface.
In the same Guardian interview, Ishiguro continues about writers taking a political stance in other media, like a newspaper essay:
“I did it once, right at the beginning of my career,” he replies. “It was the anniversary of one of the atomic bombs, and the Guardian asked me to write a piece about the atomic bomb’s relationship to literature. This was back in 1983 or something, when the cold war was still on, and people were much more preoccupied about nuclear weapons.” (…) “I sat down and I thought, well, I don’t really feel strongly about anything, but I’d better work myself up into some position, and write a piece as though I do feel very strongly about something to do with it. I came up with this concept of the pornography of seriousness, that some people would often bring in issues like the Holocaust or the atomic bombs into otherwise fairly ordinary stories, so that the stories would be given a serious dimension.” (…) “But this was something I hadn’t been going around fuming about, or even thinking about until I got asked.” He laughs. “But if you read that piece now, you’d think I had; a guy who was born in Nagasaki who felt the whole nuclear thing had been exploited by people just trying to lend spurious weight and seriousness to their otherwise rather banal piece of fiction.”
It’s ironic that in The Buried Giant Ishiguro actually did just that what he describes at the end of the quote above: tack a war theme onto a rather sparse story about an elderly couple coping with their looming death.
So I guess I agree only half with the Swedish Academy, and “my inability to fall in love with” the novel did not come from the ending and its emotional, bleak message about love (as Neil Gaiman wrote in his review of the book The New York Times), but rather from the fact that the other part of the allegory – the sweeping generalizations about how humans/nations deal with trauma – ultimately remains empty, smothering The Buried Giant with its weight and seriousness.