A Remembrance Day Review
The Buried Giant
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Ah, Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2015 novel The Buried Giant: true literature or merely fantasy? The author seems worried that readers might be misled by the setting (medieval kingdom, bandits, ogres, dragons, and magic) and mistakenly believe that this is a fantasy novel. Such are the travails of a literary author.
Post-Roman Britain: the Empire has receded and a seemingly endless wave of Saxons has poured in, pushing the Britons back across the island. These tumultuous events hold little relevance for elderly couple Axl and Beatrice, who are a lot more concerned by the fact that their community no longer trusts them with candles, lest the pair burn their home down.
Vexed, Axl and Beatrice set out to find their son, who they are pretty sure lives in a village near by, on the other side of a mist-filled landscape populated by bandits, ogres, and oh yes, the dragon.
Time has not been kind to the couple’s memories. In fact, it has not been kind to anyone’s memories; the entire regions seems to be wandering around in an amnesiac fog. On the plus side, whatever is wrong with people’s memories has stolen from them the knowledge of how much they truly loathe each other. On the minus side, Axl and Beatrice are not the only people in the region barely able to function; it is hard, for example, to be an effective guard if you cannot remember that not everyone should be let by.
Although they set out to find their son, not an explanation for the mysterious affliction, the couple’s seemingly aimless, endless journey through the desolation is a drunkard’s walk towards enlightenment. There is a reason for all that is happening, and there is a way to restore what has been lost.
But since part of what is lost is the deadly rivalry between Saxon and Briton, to regain memory may be to lose the peace.
There’s a sliding scale of historical hardness in Arthurian fiction, with context-free silliness like the BBC’s Smallville-inspired TV series Merlin at one end, with magic and stock fantasy props and no connection at all to British history, and more historically accurate (or at least less hilariously absurd) work like The Lantern Bearers at the other, with lots of verisimilitude and nothing like fell beasts, round tables, or magic 1. This book falls somewhere between the two extremes; it’s definitely a Post-Roman Britain and historical events like the Saxon invasion are part of the setting. At the same time, there’s overt magic, so the author isn’t going for total realism here.
Personally, I prefer works over at The Lantern Bearer end of the scale. Why even bother using that setting if your story does not depend on events in sixth century Britain? Why not settle for a vaguely Matter-of-Britain-flavoured secondary world?
The plot moves at the same break-neck speed as Ishiguro’s earlier novel, Remains of the Day , wandering towards a destination that is composed of equal parts melancholy and regret, with a seasoning of In the End, Death Comes for Us All. If you have read Ishiguro’s previous work, you should not be expecting this to end with a eucatastrophe. And it doesn’t.
The Buried Giant can be purchased from Random Penguins.
1: Since Arthur probably never existed, the more authors allow themselves to be constrained by known history, the less likely it is that Arthur or an Arthur analog will show up. Maybe a better name for this genre is Post-Roman British fiction.