Kazuo Ishiguro's brand new novel, The Buried Giant, is a puzzling departure. It's not just that the author of The Remains of the Day is writing an epic fantasy about ogres and a dragon. It's also that it's written in a weird, pseudo-fancy style, and it's hard to love. But I did end up kind of haunted by this book, regardless.
Some spoilers ahead...
So The Buried Giant takes place in Britain, after the death of King Arthur. Ogres roam the countryside, and there is ethnic hatred between Britons and Saxons. But the main problem is that there's a mysterious mist, that strips people of their long-term memories and leaves them with only a vague sense of the past. An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, go off in search of their long lost son, even though they can't really remember what became of him. Along the way, they meet a warrior named Wistan, a boy named Edwin with a strange affliction, and the Arthurian knight Sir Gawain, who's become a doddering old fool.
As you'd expect with a Booker Prize-winning author of so many beloved works, the response to Ishiguro's new book has been mostly respectful or enthusiastic. With some exceptions. Ursula K. Le Guin, upset by Ishiguro's discomfort with people potentially calling his book "fantasy," calls it a failure. Basically, Le Guin feels as though Ishiguro is writing fantasy without understanding the genre:
I respect what I think he was trying to do, but for me it didn't work. It couldn't work. No writer can successfully use the 'surface elements' of a literary genre — far less its profound capacities — for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it. I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, "Are they going say I'm a tight-rope walker?"
(And before anybody says that Le Guin was motivated purely by annoyance that Ishiguro was worried that people were going to "say this is fantasy," she's been pretty nice about the works of Margaret Atwood, who's made similar statements about science fiction.)
Other people have snarked about the new book as well. The Guardian ran a "digested" version of it (warning: spoilers!), taking the piss out of its weird storytelling style and rambling narrative. The Philadelphia Inquirer called it "wooden" and "disappointing." Michiko Kakutani also was disappointed. The L.A. Times calls it "misbegotten." The Telegraph gave it two stars out of five.
But for the most part, reviews have been glowing, or at least pretty upbeat.
So I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up The Buried Giant. But it's actually kind of magical, after all. It's definitely going to be the sort of book that you're either going to like or hate, with no middle ground. For one thing, the style is really, really strange, and I can only assume this is Ishiguro's attempt to copy fancy Middle English.
Here's a representative sample, from the middle of the book:
"Then help me, Sir Gawain," the soldier shouted, now making no effort to hide his fear. "Let's together put out this menace!"
Sir Gawain looked at the soldier with a puzzled air, as if he had forgotten for the moment who he was. Then he said in a calmer voice: "I'll not aid you, sir. I'm no friend of your master, for I fear his dark motives. I fear too the harm you intend to these others here, who must be innocents in whatever intrigue enfolds us."
"Sir Gawain, I hang here between life and death as a fly caught in a web. I make my last appeal to you, and though I don't understand the full part of this matter, I beg you to consider why he comes to our country if not to do us mischief!"
It's kind of strangely affected, and yet the book is also affectless. At times, Ishiguro throws in bits of alliteration, putting the reader in mind of Medieval poems like Beowulf. But there's not enough alliteration for that to become a motif, and otherwise the style is just weirdly stilted. But you get used to the weird style, and it becomes one of the main quirks that makes this book stand out. Like the fact that Axl never fails to call his elderly wife "Princess," or the strange expository dialogue.
The thing that won me over with The Buried Giant, though, was its feeling of sadness, and the way in which Ishiguro plays around with his favorite themes of repression and history.
As weird as it is to have Axl calling his wife "Princess" every page or so, the love between them is really the bedrock of this story. And I felt both the affection between them, and the gnawing anxiety that they might lose each other. It's the insecurity not of new love, but of a couple who have been together for years and years and fear what might come to separate them at the end.
And as strange and confused as the characters in this book seem — due to the mist of forgetfulness, or just due to the aimless way Ishiguro tells their story — there's an undercurrent of peevish anxiety that's kind of powerful and intense. Little things like the fact that the villagers in Axl and Beatrice's home town won't let them have a candle any more, and this upsets Beatrice over and over, become part of the fabric of their insecurity. When they walk in search of their lost son, Beatrice has to keep checking every few minutes that Axl is still walking behind her. It's moving and strange, in equal measure.
And the theme of memory gets deepened and teased out as the book goes along, too — the mist of forgetfulness is a blessing as well as a curse. It makes you forget old injuries and heal faster from old resentments, even as it threatens to make Axl and Beatrice forget their lives together. Does the forgetfulness strip people of who they really are, or enable them to rise above the past and be their better selves? We slowly get a sense, as the book goes along, that something truly horrible has happened in the past, and everyone has forgotten about it. (Sort of similar to Chan Koon-Chung's The Fat Years, in fact.)
As clumsy and strange as The Buried Giant appears at first, it's actually a subtle story of loss and confusion. And I found it quite moving, in the end — not just the twilight love of Axl and Beatrice, but also the whole portrait of a society where people are doing their best but struggling with a past they only dimly understand. There's something affectingly pathetic about the level of disorientation and bluster in this book, like people blundering in the dark — which is what happens, in the end, when you can't remember the past.
There's also a huge fairy-tale component to this story — one recurring motif is a boatman, who seems like he's connected to the supernatural but also is just a regular working stiff. And like pretty much all good fairytales, Ishiguro's story is dark and very strange, and leaves you with questions and riddles rather than explanations. The end of the book is one that's going to haunt and perplex me for a while — which, in the end, is the ultimate proof that this is a book worth reading.