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The Buried Giant


The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro is not just one of the best novelists writing in English today. He is also one of the most surprising, willing not only to address challenging themes but also to experiment with different genres. After his first two Japanese-themed works of fiction, A PALE VIEW OF HILLS and AN ARTIST OF THE FLOATING WORLD, he wrote the English drawing-room novel THE REMAINS OF THE DAY and then confounded many fans with THE UNCONSOLED, a 500-page novel that was a radical departure from the slim volumes that preceded it. This surrealist work about a classical pianist who travels to central Europe for a recital is, in my opinion, one of the greatest novels ever written. With its shifts in perspective, ruminations on memory and loss, and bizarre developments --- a character will go from one room to another and suddenly find himself in a different building, or even a different city --- it’s a profound and entertaining work of imagination.

I’ve been less impressed with the novels that followed, although the sort-of detective novel WHEN WE WERE ORPHANS and the dystopian NEVER LET ME GO had some of the psychological complexity of the earlier works. THE BURIED GIANT, Ishiguro’s first novel in 10 years and his first work of fiction since the disappointing short-story collection NOCTURNES in 2009, is his latest new direction. The novel is a post-Arthurian tale of knights and ogres, of an England in which villagers live in warrens with no doors and sleep on turf beds. This is Ishiguro as Tennyson by way of Tolkien. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t compare favorably with the works of those predecessors.

"As always, Ishiguro writes eloquently about memory and denial... This book is straight-up fantasy. It’s entertaining, and, for fantasy fans, that may be enough, but the novel is far too simplistic."

As in THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, THE BURIED GIANT begins with people who set out on a journey. Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple who have not seen their adult son for so long that they can’t recall what he looked like. But there’s a lot they can’t recall: a “mist of forgetfulness” has fallen over the land --- Ishiguro mentions the mist more than a dozen times in the book’s first seven pages --- and most of the villagers have no recollection of past visitors who have healed the sick or come to their warren for other purposes.

Axl and Beatrice begin their journey. Along the way, they meet Wistan, a Saxon warrior who seems to recall Axl from a previous time, and Edwin, a 12-year-old boy who is in search of his missing mother and whom Wistan wants to train as his apprentice. A medicine woman suggests that Axl and Beatrice visit a wise village monk named Jonus, who may be able to help in their quest. To get to him, however, they must pass through the mountains in which the she-dragon Querig lives. It is believed that Querig may be the reason for the mist. Wistan and Edwin accompany Axl and Beatrice on the trip, where they later encounter the aged Sir Gawain, who is on a mission to slay the dragon.

As always, Ishiguro writes eloquently about memory and denial: Late in the journey, Axl asks Beatrice if there’s a point to a memory’s return from the mist if the retrieval only pushes away other recollections. The clever title refers not just to the she-dragon but also to the giant of memory, which, for each of us, can be as majestic and intimidating as a giant that lurks behind a cairn. And there are some genuinely moving moments, as when a young girl named Nora gives Beatrice a homemade candle (the elderly couple must spend their nights in darkness thanks to a village edict), and jealous villagers create a commotion and take it from Beatrice as she clutches it to her breast.

But it’s hard to believe that any reader would give THE BURIED GIANT credit for offering psychological insights if it weren’t for the reputation of the author. This book is straight-up fantasy. It’s entertaining, and, for fantasy fans, that may be enough, but the novel is far too simplistic. The story wanders, there’s too much dialogue that fails to illuminate character, and the sense of place isn’t as strong as in Ishiguro’s earlier works. His formal style is well suited to the “it chanced that on a summer morn” writing one finds in Arthurian legend. If only this admirable experiment were as interesting as the books that inspired it.

Reviewed by Michael Magras on March 4, 2015

The Buried Giant
by Kazuo Ishiguro