This post has been a long time coming, I got this book on the evening of my birthday which I spent listening to Ishiguro talking about it and answering questions about it in Manchester Central Library. It was a fascinating evening and I will admit that I was embarrassingly out of good questions or conversation when I finally got to the top of the queue for the book signing. I’m taking hear
t in the fact that I was so uninteresting that he will most certainly have forgotten my existence so I can’t be too embarrassed about it.
So The Buried Giant was published this year, and it had been ten years since Ishiguro published his last book – needless to say it was greatly anticipated! I can’t pretend to be Ishiguro’s “greatest fan,” which doesn’t at all mean that I don’t like his work, more that I haven’t read all of them yet and do not feel a desperate need get through all of them as soon as possible – although that’s rarely the case with me.
My favourite so far, however, was definitely The Remains of the Day, so much so that I recommend it to everyone who asks me about books. My love for it has something to do with its understanding treatment of Stevens which is conveyed through understated and considered writing – a similarity that it shares with Stevens’ character as well. The slow revelation of his life and decisions, the consequences that he now faced and the flawed humanity that made him so forgivable (though it was laced with sadness), has stayed with me till now.
A great deal of Ishiguro’s work is similar to this. It deals with the human psyche and its perception of things. There are no true heroes (that I’ve read so far), no people who are raised on a pedestal to the point of being infallible, and reminiscence is usually the order of the day.
The Buried Giant feels a great deal like someone has taken all of the central pieces of an Ishiguro novel, tossed them into a blender along with the edge pieces of a current affairs article on sectarian violence, and the rest of the pieces from a historical text on the Early Middle Ages, blended them together, and used all of the pieces to form a completely new jigsaw.
Granted, that sounds obscure, but that was indeed the primary feeling that I had when I read the book. This is potentially because I know next to nothing about the Early Middle Ages and because I could feel the presence of each of these different contexts at all times in the book.
To help orientate you I will give a quick synopsis: Axl and Beatrice are an ageing Briton couple living in Early Modern England. They live in a village in which no one seems to remember things accurately, it is as though their memories are obscured by what they call the ‘mist,’ as it turns out, this is the case for the entire country. Axl is slowly remembering certain things that make him more aware of this phenomenon, and soon he and Beatrice, bemused by it, decide to leave their village and try to find their son who they believe lives in a village not very far away. As they travel they happen upon an Saxon village where a boy has been taken by a troll, he is returned to his people by an Saxon warrior called Wistan. He has, however, been bitten by the troll and is displaying a lack of trauma that has the village suspicious of him. In order to save him from what could possibly escalate to murder at the hands of the village, the Wistan convinces Axl and Beatrice to take him with them to spare him. Wistan also travels with them for a certain amount of time until he has to depart to complete his mission. They meet Sir Gawain who is now an old man, monks, children, mysterious ferrymen, and a dragon – they also find out the origin of the Mist.
Looking past the convoluted synopsis, this still seems to be a conundrum of a book. The mere setting likens it to an adventure story (Ishiguro says he was strongly influenced by the Samurai stories he was told as a child, but I suppose the closest most of us in England can get is the stories of King Arthur), which makes sense in terms of the dragon and trolls and travelling and spells etc. – but the tone of the book is completely at odds with this: it is slow moving. Just as Axl is reluctant to run headlong towards the conclusion, so is the tone. There is a near constant feeling of the fear of the future – which ironically is the remembrance of the past. I hasten to add that this didn’t make it boring. In fact, I kind of enjoyed the attention to detail, and the character’s attention to detail at times. It was the sort of lingering that created tension.
At the reading and Q&A, (this was pre-general election), audience members couldn’t help but ask if the politics of the novel were inspired by the current scorn of immigration and increasing fervour, tension and radicalisation by left and right wing groups all over the world. It seems a logical conclusion and one that I myself like: the sectarian tension between Britons and Saxons in the novel really interested me, especially since it relates to the issue of immigration, difference, co-habitation, and culture which is a near constant topic of consideration for me about England and overseas. Ishiguro, however, emphatically said that this wasn’t the case with his book. He’d wanted to make no allusions to the current world climate, he was more interested in the situation in the context of the Early Modern Period, and the way in which cultures and communities deal with their actions and actions done to them. Fair enough, but personally I am unable to unsee the links and am happy to consider them in the context of now.
But Ishiguro’s real focus is who controls the memory banks of the community – and for the record, that’s a brilliant question. If my degree is teaching me anything it is that history is a narrative written in exactly the same way as fiction – and it is written by the winner, not necessarily the good guy (whatever that means). When I think about this I often think of our current perceptions of World War One. When we commend our fallen soldiers we commend them as heroes, and by and large that’s fine, but what we often refuse to remember and teach is that WWI was basically a greedy attempt to keep the status quo of power and colonialism around the world as it was – and isn’t that just the worst thing to think, that they were used? We also forget that men who didn’t enlist were often forced into it by humiliation. And the British Empire is another memory that is suppressed and is conveniently not taught – I remember one of my History AS Level modules was ‘British Foreign Policy 1848-1914′ -and we only ever discussed the policies and very rarely the ‘on the ground’ consequences in these ‘foreign’ areas of the world.
In Ishiguro’s novel the memories he alludes to are the deaths caused by sectarian violence between the Saxons and Britons: wars, massacres, betrayal and power-mongering. The issue at hand is: how do you deal with what has happened? In the case of the victim, do you fight back, get revenge, or move on despite having suffered so as to provide a chance for peace. As for the oppressor, do you forget, ask for forgiveness (can you even be forgiven?), how do you deal with the guilt? And what happens, as is so often the case, when you are both oppressor and oppressed. The concept provides an uncomfortable touch of reality to this book which features trolls, dragons, magic and knights – all of the things that we are drawn to in order to escape reality.
So in conclusion, I am still unsure of this book, but I am sure that it is a good book, and one that is definitely worth reading. Ishiguro has basically broken his own mould – and every mould that someone might try to put his book in, which deserves kudos at the very least.
So, this book gets 4 stars, though they are confused and intrigued stars.