Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest, The Buried Giant, has incited debate in literary circles. The author can be said to have sparked it off himself by declaring that, though his book houses ogres and pixies and dragons, it is “not a fantasy” novel. This has had the effect of upsetting some writers, while others come to Ishiguro’s defence.
Its genre membership, however, is not the primary concern of this review. Indeed, to slot it into any one category seems impossible. The Buried Giant is many things: a fantastical allegory, a love story, a novel of ideas, an adventure. And it is written with Ishiguro’s characteristic attention to detail, lovingly constructed characters and a beautifully evoked atmosphere of loss and longing that seeps, almost unconsciously, into the unsuspecting reader.
Welcome to Britain in the days of yore. Arthur has passed, and with him the age of gallantry and chivalry. A strange mist has seeped into the world, causing people, Britons and Saxons both, to forget things, to lose their memories and cast a haze over their lives. An elderly couple, known to readers only as Axl and Beatrice, decides to go visit their son, who for some reason has left their village and made his home elsewhere. On their quest, they meet a number of strange, assorted figures, including a Saxon warrior and his apprentice and Sir Gawain, one of the knights of the round table.
As the book progresses, we learn that “the buried giant” is a fearsome dragon named Querig, whose breath is the source of the mist. Beatrice and Axl fall in with the quest to kill him and restore memory to the world, though not without misgivings. Despite Beatrice’s assurance that, no matter what is revealed, their love for one another will remain undiminished, Axl and the readers have misgivings.
At its heart, The Buried Giant is to me a novel about the price of memory. What does it mean to love in a world where you have forgotten most of what you went through with your partner? Can the love you share be ‘true’ in that circumstance? When memories return, is the hurt that comes with them worth it? After all, it’s not just happy memories, but hatreds and enmities and feuds that also come coursing back. Will peace linger on between the Britons and Saxons, or will it all disappear under a tidal wave of violence, its fury only exacerbated by the years of forgetfulness?
Ishiguro presents a curious moral dilemma to his readers. Are we better off remembering and hating one other, or would we prefer to live in a world where everything—memories of love and loss, happiness and grief—are buried under a layer of fog, one which, finally, allows us to live in a state of peace—if an uneasy one—side by side with those we share long histories of blood and warfare with? Even at the close of the novel, we are not entirely sure which side of this dilemma to come down on.
There are points in the narrative where the story seems to drag, where it’s hard to stay attuned and focused on what is happening. And then, almost as though he senses the flagging interest, Ishiguro picks up the pace, pushes his characters and has them reveal sides of themselves that you had not suspected. In particular, he does a wonderful job with the ageing Gawain, the relic of a former, more heroic time, who clings desperately to the one duty left him by his glorious king. He makes Gawain an almost Quixote-like figure, an idealist in a world where everyone seems to have forgotten their purpose and their beliefs.
For all its genre wars and Ishiguro’s potentially inciting remarks, The Buried Giant is that rare book: one that makes you think, and leaves you potentially emotionally overhauled. It’s slow, yes, but Ishiguro ensures that when you close the covers on Axl and Beatrice, their trials stay with you for a long time to come.