Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant (2015)
Intrigued by the synchronicity, I embarked on my third Ishiguro novel. I had been wowed by The Remains of the Day, and absorbed by Never Let Me Go, but I had a harder time getting into this one. Though in those other books Ishiguro brilliantly worked with unreliable narration and hidden realities, in the end an astute reader was able to figure out what was going on. In Giant the fog never seemed to lift, and while this may well have been the author’s intention, it made it hard for me to feel connected to the story.
A brain-fuddling fog is indeed very much part of the narrative, as the characters themselves experience and describe it. In a post-Arthurian Britain (Arthur being conceived as the quasi-historical sixth century war leader), an elderly couple sets out on a journey to find their son. Beatrice and Axl are devoted to each other, but they can’t quite remember why. Nor can they recall why their son went away, where exactly he is, or what happened during the recent war between Britons and Saxons that has left both peoples uneasily co-habiting on their small island.
As they join up with some other wanderers — one of Arthur’s knights, a Saxon warrior, and an outcast boy — they become convinced that the source of their befuddlement is a she-dragon who is exhaling a fog of forgetfulness over the land. Beatrice is determined to overcome the dragon and recover their memories of her life together with Axl; he, meanwhile, begins to have discomforting experiences of a painful past and doubts about the future.
Ishiguro writes in a vaguely sing-songy style that seems to be an attempt to recall medieval texts without being too self-consciously archaic. His narration jumps about, mostly centered on Beatrice and Axl but with excursions into other minds and points of view. It’s a scattered, schizophrenic kind of tale, in which random, partial memories surface but seldom cohere into full realization.
I have to admit that I had a difficult time puzzling out what was metaphor, what was delusion, and what was reality, and that this made me uncomfortable. There were some indications that what certain characters described as otherworldly creatures or phenomena (e.g. ogres) had a more mundane explanation, and that the pre-conceptions of the characters determined the world they perceived. This is an interesting philosophical point, but disorienting when applied to a story, in which generally the author is performing the magic trick of making us believe in something that doesn’t exist. It matters not whether that something is a dragon or a duchess or a dachshund; within the world of a story it must gain being and presence, or why bother with it?
This dis-orientation was inconsistent. There were times when it was very hard to imagine an alternative explanation for what the characters were describing, other than that they were all completely insane. And yet, if that were the case, what could be gained from entering into their fractured minds? Were we meant to reflect on our own self-delusional versions of an impenetrable reality? That’s a stage on everyone’s quest, but to me it cannot be the end. I believe in meaning and wholeness, and if that betrays my lack of sophistication as a reader and human being, so be it. I’m not interested in obfuscation or mystification for its own sake, only when it helps to break us through to a higher level of understanding.
Though I enjoyed parts of the journey, appreciated much of the imagery, and grew to care for some of the characters, in the end I was left frustrated and dissatisfied. Perhaps a reread will enlighten me further as to what Ishiguro might have been trying to say, but right now I’m not at all sure.
If you read the book, what did you think? Please share your own ideas in the comments, or link up your own posts on the Master Post. I’m happy to read dissenting opinions, and grateful for any light you can shed on this conundrum.