Monday, April 27, 2015

Contemporary Interlude #2: The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Knopf, 2015
314 pp


 Promise to keep what you feel for me this moment always in your heart, no matter what you see once the mist's gone." 

In a very different approach to how I normally make these posts, the first thing I'm going to do here is to link to what I feel is an excellent literary review since  it says what I would say if I could actually write a literary review. For balance, I'm also linking to the not so positive  The New Yorker's take on it; there are many others floating around out there available for the reading, both positive and negative.

 Simply speaking, it's a book I will never forget, which is appropriate, since The Buried Giant is actually a story that directs the reader to the question of memory and its opposite, that of forgetting.

Beatrice and Axl are an elderly couple who live in a dark-ages Britain during a time of a rather uncertain peace between enemies. War has come and gone, peace has been established, but no one can seem to remember how this came to be. Beatrice and Axl live in a warren without light (shades of Plato's cave here) in a  community where "the past was rarely discussed," not "taboo," but as our narrator reveals,

 "it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes."  

They decide to go and see their son, whom Beatrice can remember "clear enough" some days, while at other times, "it's as if a veil's fallen over his memory." Neither one of them can remember why their son is no longer with them, but Beatrice believes  that "he longs for us to leave this place and be living with him under his protection," so off they go to find his village. Beatrice also suffers from pain, and hopes that on the way to visit their son she can find someone to help her with it.  They are not the only ones on a quest, however; they meet up with others who are also seeking something in their own right.  The "mist" hovers over the land, causing everyone everywhere to suffer a sort of amnesia -- here and there small flashes of the past may seep through, but for the most part, these are just small blips, since the mist prevents everyone from fully remembering either their own individual pasts or any sort of collective history.  Axl and Beatrice set off on their journey and have to move through a land where they encounter knights, ogres, pixies, dragons, a mysterious monastery and much more. And then of course, there's the buried giant, who people take great care to avoid when crossing where he sleeps. For if he wakes...

This book may have all of the elements of a typical fantasy novel, and it very obviously borrows heavily from Arthurian legend, but read closer -- it is a story that uses  standard fantasy/mythological elements to lead the reader to explore the idea of memories of the past that have been obscured in the present.  In an interview, the author says that the question of  "when is it better to just forget things and keep them forgotten?" comes up time and again among the characters.  While there is great food for thought here,  in the context of this rather skittish postwar time of peace, it is a question that  I found most appropriate and well illustrated in the story of Beatrice and Axl.

 I absolutely loved the political implications of this novel, but even more so,  it was the story of this elderly couple that had me grabbing for a kleenex or two at the end. It started earlier with the story of the boatman, whose job it is to ferry a couple over to an island where they can be together always.   His duty, before doing his job, is to "discover if their bond of love is such to allow them to dwell together" there by asking them to recall to him "their most cherished memories."  Later, Beatrice will recall a conversation she once had with a woman who asked her
"How can you and your husband prove your love for each other when you can't remember the past you've shared?"
Without those memories, Beatrice worries that their love will "fade and die," something she greatly fears.

 When I finished the book, even though I'm not a fan of love stories, I was floored more by their story than by anything else in this novel, and it spoke volumes. The novel became much more satisfying once I got past the first 100 pages or so (up to then I remember describing it as a "slogfest"), and I ended up wanting to read it again as soon as I'd turned the last page. When a book I started out not liking can actually end up making  me cry, it's a very good one indeed.  


  1. Nancy, I love the way you separated the themes of the book from the form of the book. I found that I had to do the same. Kazuo Ishiguro’s theme is unforgettable. I prefer the way that he expressed it in Remains of the Day, and Never Let Me Go.

    In describing to a fellow Kazuo Ishiguro reader why she wouldn’t like reading The Buried Giant, because of its fantasy format, I found that in boiling the book down to its basic story elements, spoiler style, I broke down sobbing as you did.

    That was the reaction I had in reading Remains of the Day, and, to a slightly lesser degree, Never Let Me Go. Ironically, it wasn't the reaction I had to reading this book.

    I didn’t write a review for this book (or give it a star rating). Fantasy isn’t my genre. I lack the tools to describe how well this book works as a fantasy novel.

    Ishiguro is doing something very interesting as a writer, though. He is exploring the same basic theme, something akin to the contributing factors to personal and national heartbreak, in a series of different genres.

    To say that I liked Never Let Me Go less than Remains of the Day, or that I liked The Buried Giant less than either of the others, might be completely missing the point.

    If Ishiguro were trying to cultivate a following, he would stick with the same genre, maybe even the same characters.

    By writing in a new genre each time, I think he is trying to convey his principal theme to reach as many different readers as he possibly can. My guess is that Remains of the Day would be your optimal Ishiguro experience. On the other hand, if this was your first Ishiguro experience, it might remain the most powerful.

    1. Thank you for commenting. I have to say that Beatrice & Axl's story hit me like a ton of bricks, and my reaction was very much on the personal side. I've read his Never Let Me Go, and the second time through it was much better than the first. I'm not a big fantasy reader but anyone who writes as well as he does and manages to prompt a gut reaction ought to be able to write however he wants, in what ever genre he wants. I'll take Remains of the Day down off the shelf and hope to get to it over the summer.


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