Many reviewers were flummoxed last year when they tried to come to grips with Kazuo Ishiguro’s seventh novel The Buried Giant. A lot of readers are likely to have the same reaction.
That seems to be Ishiguro’s goal — the creation of a story and a world where logic and clarity exist only in pieces, like shards of a stained-glass window fallen to the ground.
This novel is set in post-Roman, post-King Arthur England, on a landscape populated by Britons, Saxons and Picts, as well as ogres, pixies and one greatly feared she-dragon Querig. Of course, there’s also that buried giant of the title.
Yet, The Buried Giant is no historical fantasy. There is nothing quaint and picturesque about the novel. No cute sidekicks, no noble quests.
Neither does it truck in horror. The humans in this story are fearful of Querig and the other mythical creatures who share the same patch of geography, but they take them in stride, as a modern American would recognize the possibility of an armed robbery in certain places and take sensible precautions.
“A low growl”
True, there is a Saxon warrior, Wistan, who has been given the job by his king to kill the dragon, and a knight — Gawain, the now-elderly nephew of Arthur — who has his own task to carry out. There are sword fights and harrowing escapes.
Yet, Ishiguro shuns the romantic gauze that most writers of such subjects provide for readers. Instead, his descriptions are always knee-deep in the grit and grunt of real life. Here, for instance is one of those sword fights, taking place in a forest clearing as three characters watch:
Axl could hear the grey-haired soldier’s breathing, more audible now, because the man was releasing a low growl with each breath. When he charged forward he did so with his sword high above his head in what seemed an unsophisticated, even suicidal attack.
The grey-haired soldier, a Briton, knew he wasn’t a match for Wistan, but his own lord had sent him to stop the warrior. Ishiguro describes how, in his lunge forward, the soldier feinted and, in a blink, shifted his swing.
The Saxon side-stepped neatly, and drew his own sword across the oncoming man in a single simple movement. The soldier let out a sound such as a bucket makes when, dropped into a well, it first strikes the water; he then fell forward onto the ground. Sir Gawain muttered a prayer, and Beatrice asked: “Is it done now, Axl?”
A kindness at the bridge
The grey-haired soldier, although not at the center of the novel, is no papier-mache bad guy when he arrives at the clearing to meet the warrior in combat.
A few pages earlier, with a minimum of brush strokes, Ishiguro has sketched him as an older man, formerly in some position of authority who now finds himself on an uncomfortably equal footing with coarse troops he once led. He is a man who is kind to Beatrice as she and her husband Axl cross a bridge past the soldiers, a kindness for which they are warmly grateful and of which they, nonetheless, take advantage.
This is what I mean when I assert above that The Buried Giant is filled with the grit and grunt of real life.
Which may seem odd, given that this novel does feature mythical creatures and does dash to bits the expectations of readers that a fictional world will operate by certain immutable internal rules.
Disconcerting the reader
Throughout the book, teenage Edwin is yearning to find his long-missing mother. He even conducts conversations with her disembodied voice. There is a woman who pops up here and there in the story although never when Edwin is around. Is she the boy’s mother? And what does Querig have to do with the boy?
These are questions that aren’t answered. There are many.
Such as the nature of the dispute among monks at a fortress monastery, and the local fears of the Great Plain and the hills around the plain that are known as the Buried Giant. And the girl Edwin finds in the reeds, bound in ropes by her gypsy-like friends in what may or may not be a joke. And the attack of pixies on the river. And how it is that a woman angry at a boatman follows him around, looking for the chance to slit the throat of a bunny in his presence.
That boatman, in fact, seems to be entering the novel from another dimension. Or, perhaps better put, he seems to be the link between one reality and another.
All of this and much more will disconcert any reader who is paying attention.
Even so, in the midst of this shard-like, chaotic world, Ishiguro’s story is anchored by characters, major and minor, who are like you and me, fully themselves, rich and deep as people, with perceptions and reactions that any one of us would recognize.
This, I think, is what makes The Buried Giant so powerful.
The anarchic illogic — or, at least, mind-twisting lack of clarity — that the novel’s people confront and live with parallels our own experience. We may think our world makes sense. We may feel we have a measure of control over our lives. But it is illusory. We do what we can in the face of what the world puts in our path, and throws at us, and slams us with.
And certain things endure.
Like anger and hatred. Like memory and forgetfulness. Like love.
Slaughter and war are just under the surface of everything that goes on in The Buried Giant. There is as well the yearning for peace. And the desire to know.
The unfulfillable desire to know.
“Still there, Axl?”
An elderly couple, on a journey to their son’s town, are the center of the novel — Beatrice and Axl. Beatrice is suffering from a vague, undetailed ailment. Axl supports her but is himself increasingly frail.
They share their journey and their discoveries, and the great dangers they face are those having to do with each other. And the greatest is their fear of separation. Ishiguro writes:
But, for the most part, Axl would make sure his wife went first, for the reason that practically every fiend or evil spirit they were likely to encounter [near the Great Plain] was known to target its prey at the rear of a party — in much the way, I suppose, a big cat will stalk an antelope at the back of the herd. There were numerous instances of a traveler glancing back to the companion walking behind, only to find the latter vanished without a trace.
It was the fear of such an occurrence that compelled Beatrice intermittently to ask as they walked: “Are you still there, Axl?” To which he would answer routinely: “Still here, princess.”
This is the conversation they have, aloud and silently, throughout the novel. It is their bond expressed in words.
And their fear.
Patrick T. Reardon