Kazuo Ishiguro’s last work, Never Let Me Go (2005), forayed successfully into science fiction, projecting a grim future in which human beings are created so that others may live longer. The novel was widely appreciated (although it could hardly live up to The Remains of the Day) and turned into a well-received movie in 2010. Now, after an intermission of a decade, Ishiguro seems to have ventured into the realm of fantasy with The Buried Giant, in a move which has been less appreciated by one fellow author in particular.
The Buried Giant gained a lot of publicity through Ursula K. LeGuin’s vehement attack on it on her blog. Ishiguro was wondering about the way in which his readers would receive his new novel, saying, “Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?” LeGuin, one of the world’s most lauded authors of both science fiction and fantasy, was rightly angered at the fact that “It appears that the author takes the word for an insult.” One does wonder what Ishiguro is trying to do, if this novel really cannot be considered to be fantasy, because The Buried Giant presents a beautiful, albeit slow, fantasy story.
Set in an imaginary period just after King Arthur drove the Romans from Britain, the Britons and the Saxons have finally found peace. It is a fragile peace, however, one that needs to be artificially maintained. A mist seems to have spread over the land, which clouds all long-term memories, making the people forget their past crimes and hatreds. At the centre of the story stand the elderly Axl and Beatrice, who, struggling against this fog, realise that they have not seen their son in years. They set out to find him, their memories muddled, but their intent strong.
The book deliberately takes a maddeningly slow pace: the pace two elderly people would take when they are in no hurry and their bodies cannot support them as well as they used to. The conversations are repetitive and often seemingly empty, consisting only of mutual reassurances between Axl and Beatrice: I am all right, are you all right? We must go on, are you really well? Yes, let us go on. For the reader who can bear this pace, so much slower than the twenty-first century usually expects of a reader, Ishiguro re-creates the effect the mist has on Axl and Beatrice. The narrative has a foggy feeling to it: it is difficult to see clearly what is going on, and the reader has to slowly grope their way through.
The fantasy ‘surface elements’ over which Ishiguro and LeGuin clashed come in the form of dragons and ogres. The ogres are a threat to the villagers: Axl and Beatrice meet the heroic knight Wistan as he saves a Saxon village from an ambush in which a boy was abducted. Wistan and the boy, Edwin, join Axl and Beatrice and soon find out that their journey will take them toward the lair of the dragon Querig, who breathes out the mist that causes this strange amnesia. Heading for the dragon, they encounter none other than a now very aged Sir Gawain, who seems to have been on a fruitless, quixotic quest to slay this dragon for several decades now. Sir Gawain has become a pitiable, laughable figure, and no real reason for this is given, which is disappointing for everyone who has ever enjoyed an Arthurian legend.
If a reader pities Axl and Beatrice, and the fact that they cannot really remember why or how much they love each other, they will realize how difficult this situation is for the knights: will slaying the dragon reopen the old wounds for the Saxons and Britons? Will Beatrice and Axl suddenly remember that the other has been unfaithful in the past? However, it is quite difficult to fully sympathise with the position of these two protagonists. Amnesia is very difficult to put into writing, and Ishiguro does not always convey it effectively. One half of the couple will remember something, and the other half will not silently, or shrug it away, or claim that it was misremembered – a technique that gives more doubt about than depth to the characters.
The ending is touching, leaving it to the reader to decide whether the fantasy elements of the story should indeed be carried all the way through to the end. If it is possible to argue against its very creator, one may claim that the fantasy elements go much beyond the surface if they are able to influence the reader’s interpretation of the ending. However, the main problem with this book has little to do with all this genre-pigeonholing: it is a slow book with characters that are not capable of captivating the reader’s interest for very long.
‘The Buried Giant’ is available in hardback from most bookstores, RRP £20.00