Monday, August 15, 2016

Review of The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Gene Wolfe’s Latro novels are a brilliant addition to literature. Examining the subjectivity of memory, and its role in creating identity and purpose in life, the three books tell of the wounded soldier and his experience with anterograde amnesia (i.e. everyday he forgets anew). His past only what he chooses to write in a scroll at the end of the day, he has forgotten the enemies he fought in battle, as well as the horrific details from the battlefield. He lives, from some perspectives, as innocent as a child. Taking this concept but developing it toward cultural memory is Kazuo Ishiguro’s fantastic The Buried Giant (2015).

Arthurian England rather than ancient Greece, Ishiguro brings to bear several familiar tropes of British classic literature and legend; there are knights and dragons, castles and ogres. But never are they the focus—never do they overtake the storyline, pushing it toward the current mainstream of epic fantasy. Like Wolfe’s Latro, Ishiguro keeps his prose deceivingly simple and his characters few in number, thus allowing on his true themes and ideas to shine through.

Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple living in the poor warrens of the Britons. Though long in years, they are still in love with one another. Disrespected by the people living around them for reasons their fading memories have trouble recollecting, the couple decide to leave the warren and take a trip to visit their son who now lives in a Saxon village of several days’ journey. Meeting warriors, avoiding ogres, and visiting old castles along the way, the couple find their memories returning to them, even as a new war between the Britons and Saxons seems imminent.

At the heart of The Buried Giant is a cycle of violence—of the Saxon desire for revenge against King Arthur’s Britons, which in itself was a reaction to… Framing this cycle is memory, particularly the idea that no memory leaves one in peace, the need for revenge lacking a basis. Or, as Tom Holland writes in his Guardian review, “A grievance forgotten, Ishiguro implies, is an atrocity forestalled.”

But the idea ‘ignorance is bliss’ is too simple a keyhole for The Buried Giant. It seems only the penultimate step. Over the threshold and into the home of Ishiguro’s conception stand Axl and Beatrice. Their love for one another, their conversations with Charon (dubbed ‘the boatman’ in the novel), and most particularly their ability to spend their whole lives together—through thick and thin, through virtue and vice, through grievances toward one another—and yet remain together seems the actual key. Unlike the Saxons and Britons, the couple are able to set aside their differences, even those they remember, to focus on the larger ideals of compassion and compromise, and of the shared need for life, support, and sustenance. Wistan, Sir Gawain, the dragon—these and other symbols, as achingly honorable as they may be, stand apart, and indeed, some pay the price for it. I will not spoil Axl and Beatrice’s fate, but suffice to say something unique awaits their faith.

The Buried Giant, unlike the majority of fantasy on the market these days, possesses a simple beauty achieved through lexical precision. Not a word is out of place as the story elegantly steps from stone to stone, never missing a one. Complementing and enhancing this simple beauty is Ishiguru’s selection of objects and imagery. Deceivingly modest, there are no lengthy descriptions of swords and armor, or glorification of the power of knights and horses. A candle, a spider, a staff, a cloak, a wicker boat, these and other relatively common objects appear more often than heads hewn or helms cleft, and as a result ground the narrative in a mix of Medieval quotidian life and common-enough, though telling, character interaction. Heroes there are, but remain something to be meditated upon rather than entertained by.

In the end, The Buried Giant is a fantastic contribution to the long heritage of the Matter of Britain, as much as it complements Wolfe’s Latro novels. Likewise possessing a message that transcends the ages, there are some classic fantasy scenes: a monster encounter in an underground catacomb, a showdown of honorable knights, an enigmatic child marked by the supernatural, a dragon, and others, but the wealth of content lies deeper, in the power and effect of cultural memory, and the perspectives and and insghts needed to overcome its darker aspects. Representing Ishiguro’s aims, Axl and Beatrice are a precious pair of characters, and will stick in the reader’s mind long after the final pages have been turned. Superb novel.

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