Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant (Faber & Faber, 2015)
by R.A. Davis
The novels of Kazuo Ishiguro all celebrate the same singularly human skill: the mind’s ability to evade an insistent and monstrous reality. In The Remains of the Day, Stevens the butler looks back on a life devoted to service, only to realise too late the cost of his devotion; in The Unconsoled the narrator is the unknowing victim of a typical but relentless anxiety dream; and in Never Let Me Go, the doomed children of Hailsham are quietly resigned to a function understood by everyone but themselves. If the truth ever dawns on these narrators its light falls first on the reader. Ishiguro’s art is to gently reveal the private horror of these human sacrifices. Invariably, they are the sacrifices of the first person.
It is therefore unsettling to find in the opening sentence of his latest work not the first person but the second:
You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated…
After six novels and a lengthy pause from publication, Ishiguro’s divorce from his beloved first could be traumatic. If that address were written out, whose would we be left with but the author’s; a voice readers have not yet heard and one they might not wish to hear. So when the first person singular appears, as late as the book’s third paragraph, it comes as something of a relief. That is, until it declines to become a character.
This ‘I’ arrives in The Buried Giant at roughly the same point as the ‘I’ in The Hobbit which appears with the digression “I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays.” There is certainly a shade of Tolkien’s fireside storyteller in Ishiguro’s narrator: an omniscient, anonymous, eternal (and paternal) authority. The odd slide into direct address suggests we are overhearing an old wisdom, speaking to a younger present. They begin by casting us back to a forgotten Britain after the Romans, a time when ogres are “still native.” The mention of this mythical creature on page one is politely provocative. The reader must immediately choose whether to confront or ignore the issue of genre. Would it matter if these ogres turned out to be real?
The prelude to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song features the twelfth century slaying of a richly described gryphon. Readers awaiting further gryphons in Gibbon’s A Scots Quair may be disappointed. Mythical beasts could not be considered part of the trilogy’s world, nor is it likely that Gibbon considered gryphons a peril faced by medieval Scots, or people of any era. Those readers beginning what they believe to be a work of literary or historical fiction might assume that Ishiguro’s ogres are only as real as Gibbon’s gryphon; a fairytale in the minds of the characters, mechanically impossible in the parameters of the narrative. In The Buried Giant they are not. The ogres here are real.
If literary fiction is to contain an ogre, we might demand that such a creature, in order to earn its place in our esteemed genre, experience some sort of unsettling encounter with an old acquaintance leading them gently to recall one tragic summer of their youth, then to consider a destructive love affair, and finally to reconnect with their troubled ogre offspring. Perhaps a future Man Booker Prize will be awarded to a great novel about a jaded unicorn. The issue is not whether mythical creatures should stray into literary fiction, but rather, should literary fiction stray into the realm of mythical creatures, and what happens at the border?
Kazuo Ishiguro was probably one of the unnamed targets of the late Iain Banks in his critique of the tendency in the publishing world to celebrate the pseudo-sci-fi works of ‘literary’ authors which were only pedestrian by the standards of the genre. Ishiguro is guilty as charged: he set a literary fiction in an alternative past where children are reared for organ harvest. Indeed, the taxonomic label dystopian science fiction tells us everything about the structural parameters afforded to the plot of Never Let Me Go. It cannot, however, summon what the novel says about innocence, loss, dignity, pity or compassion. The ultimate irony of Banks’ complaint is that he is a success in both general (that is, literary) fiction and sci-fi, but remains distinguished in these dual purposes by the inclusion or exclusion of his middle initial M.. Passing away a few months after Banks, Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing had had no use for her middle M. when she published her science fiction sequence Canopus in Argos: Archives. In her literary epic The Golden Notebook, we see an individual’s struggle to unify her life’s multiple genres into a coherent text, an undivided self. Lessing achieved this. So did Banks. But if the M. were added/removed across all of his titles, which of his genres would be more adulterated by their blending? Neither? Perhaps both?
Ursula Le Guin (spoiler warning) did not enjoy The Buried Giant. Ishiguro’s prior speculation that some readers would be lost when they encountered fantasy elements in his work was taken as evidence of his bigotry. Le Guin’s analysis is also that of a master craftsperson, identifying the technical, structural and stylistic failings of a piece: “I respect what I think he was trying to do, but for me it didn’t work.” It appears his narrative style is most at fault: “A toneless, inexact language… incapable of creating landscape, meaningful relationship, or credible event.” Yet, in some sense, these are Ishiguro’s favourite tools. The thoughts of his narrators are not heightened or accelerated. The faults Le Guin sees are the faults in everyday speech: tone blunted by use, nagging repetitions, words that do not move mountains or build them, relationships that can be rendered meaningless in a moment, entire lives without credibility. This is realism. It is not Ishiguro who intrudes into the fantasy realm, but the banality of the real. It is still an intrusion.
In her 1973 essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” Le Guin worked to distinguish good fantasy writing from bad. The pamphlet was not written as an aid to criticism but as an aid to writers. She praises Tolkien’s prose as “direct, concrete, and simple” and identifies its antithesis, “fake plainness”: an effortful struggle to appear effortless. Ishiguro’s famous first persons – the pitiful Stevens, the dreaming pianist Ryder, the charmed detective Christopher Banks (in When We Were Orphans) and sad Kathy H – all the avatars of his practiced style, are locked in a desperate effort not to admit the simple and concrete.
By applying his technique to fantasy, Ishiguro has erred, however courageously. A luxurious mist rests on this novel’s landscape and characters. But a hero’s quest into magical peril cannot be made beautifully obscure. The peril, however magical, must at least appear real to the minds of the heroes. Alas, they do not. And by the logic of Ishiguro’s modus operandi, there are never enough clues for the reader to form a suspicion of the truth the characters evade, because the characters perceive no detail. Reneging on his own pact of trust, the only clause available to an author to escape such a contract is an overarching metaphor. If a single such idea regulates The Buried Giant it is the concept of the obscured past. The magical device at the heart of the novel is a shared (but oddly selective) amnesia, induced by dragon’s breath. The heroes Axl and Beatrice undertake a literal and psychological quest to reclaim their stolen memories. Rather than expire in companionable gloom they dangerously pursue the total recollection of their lives, including the wrongs they fear they have done. It remains an evocative theme, right until the quest’s conclusion.
Readers of purely literary fiction may be unconvinced by the novel’s spells and monsters (being real magic, not magical realism) while dedicated fantasy readers may be disappointed by the gentle pace of the quest. Pedants of the historical will bristle as a fifth century Briton alludes to digging potatoes (a millennium too early). What they must all remember is Italo Calvino’s thoughts in the introduction to his trilogy Our Ancestors:
There are two different words in English, novel and romance, for what in Italian is called a romanzo. But although we have only a single word for them in Italian, the difference between the two kinds is felt.
The Buried Giant should be approached as a romance as much as a novel. It is specifically an Arthurian romance. Golden memories of Arthur endure among the characters, while darker recollections gradually emerge from the mist. One vision of Arthur obscures another: the chivalrous leader of noble knights is how the characters remember their warlord. It is the Arthur of medieval romance versus the Arthur of attempted realism.
The notion of Arthur as misremembered war criminal is fairly innovative, and unexpectedly timely. This is, after all, an English novel. Even with ancient Britons as protagonists and Saxons as the old enemy, the narrator speaks of that “for which England later became celebrated.” A cameo from a Pictish monk is not sufficient to expand the novel’s universe to contain all of Britain or any incarnation of the former province Britannia. Arthur in proto-England, as opposed to Arthur in proto-Britain, is therefore the model of an English king. If his remains were unearthed from a car park in Somerset next year and unexpectedly verified, we can assume he would be re-interred as befits a former King of England, whatever crimes he might have committed. The novel’s ‘west’ is hardly Wales but the West Country; its east is the Fens. The landscape is all England. (Elsewhere in the novel it is inferred that the troubled young Edwin is to become Edwin of Northumbria, a pivotal pre-English monarch.) Perhaps what is most innately English about this novel is its greatest influence; Beowulf is in its very genes, while there is no hint of the more contemporaneous poem Y Gododdin, a British elegy to warriors killed in an alleged massacre. In 2015, sixth century conflict still has implications for English and British identity. Like Axl and Beatrice, we as a culture would like to clear the mist that darkens the ages, to find out what our ancestors may be responsible for. Jorge Luis Borges could trace the conception of English language and literature to a legendary Saxon mercenary’s call for brothers in arms: “Hengist wants men, A.D. 449’ – ‘Hengist wants them (but he does not know it) […] for the singing of Shakespeare and Whitman,” as though the precursor of all poetry is violence. This quest in prose seeks that precursor. The giant of the novel’s title is not Arthur but rather a Hobbesian leviathan, from a brimming mass-grave.
Ishiguro’s eternal first person makes a surprising reappearance at the novel’s climax. In a break from the author’s tradition the narrator becomes, not the victim of his ritual sacrifice, but the hand that deals it. As a work of fantasy The Buried Giant may be pure folly, but in the genre of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel it is a subtle innovation. The novel’s magic has freed the ‘I’ to become something other than a character-narrator. This ‘I’ could stand for Ishiguro.