The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant (UK cover)Although there’s said to be a giant buried beneath a plain the elderly couple Axl and Beatrice cross early in their quest to join their son in another village, the ‘buried giant’ Ishiguro’s novel’s title refers to is metaphorical, not literal: it is the violence and atrocities of a recent past in which Christian Britons under ‘the great and beloved Arthur, now many years in heaven’ subdued the pagan Saxons, and which resulted in the two peoples now living together in apparent peace. But this is also a land under a strange curse: a mist of forgetfulness has fallen on its people, and many of them have almost no recollection of those terrible events. Axl and Beatrice have uneasy feelings about unremembered difficulties in their own long marriage, too, and can’t quite recall even what their son looks like, though they’ve set out to find him, always sure he’s only a village away in the pre-hedgerow English wilds. On their way, they encounter several figures who bring them back to a realisation of what the land has been through, including the aged Sir Gawain (long charged with killing the dragon Querig, whose breath some say is the cause of the land’s forgetfulness), and the young saxon warrior Wistan, who has his own reasons for travelling from his people’s native fenlands to complete the task Sir Gawain is tarrying over. Rumour has it the local lord Brennus has found a way to tame a dragon so it can be used in a genocidal war he intends to make against the local Saxon people, a rumour the militant Saxons of Wistan’s country believe because they, unlike Axl and Beatrice, remember the betrayal and slaughter of innocents that ended the recent wars.

This is not new thematic territory for Ishiguro, whose past novels — A Pale View of Hills, An Artist of the Floating World, and The Remains of the Day — explored the idea of buried, terrible secrets scattered among the recollections of seemingly blameless, otherwise unremarkable lives, particularly (with those latter two) in relation to the events of the Second World War. An article on The Guardian goes into why Ishiguro chose to set his latest assault on this theme in a fantasticated Dark Ages England:

‘[Ishiguro] said The Buried Giant’s fantasy setting served as a neutral environment to explore the idea of collective memory and how societies heal after atrocities by forgetting the past. He revealed that he considered Bosnia, America and post-second world war Japan and France as potential settings, but worried that sort of a recent historical scenario would make the story too political. “I always feel the pull of the metaphorical landscape, I am not a straightforward realist,” he said. “As far as I am concerned, I am trying to make a universal statement.”’

Unfortunately, Ishiguro found himself stepping on an unanticipated Buried Giant of his own, no way near as terrible as past war crimes or genocide, but still incendiary to some of the more Saxon (pagan, angry, armed with tech) areas of the internet: the 20th century’s culture war between genre and the literary establishment, now long decided (the genre side won, though there are diehards who remain unaware of the fact) because the internet undermined the cultural elite’s ivory strongholds (literary magazines, print reviews, the major publishers). What was once a ghetto within the world of publishing is more mainstream now than the mainstream itself. But some survivors of the conflict — Ursula Le Guin being one — still smart when they hear someone protesting, ‘It’s not fantasy’ or ‘It’s not SF’, and rattle their sabres. I don’t think Ishiguro intended to distance himself from the genre, but he evidently didn’t walk as carefully as he needed to over this particular unquiet burial mound.

Buried Giant 02Is the book fantasy? Undoubtedly. As well as the dragon Querig, there are ogres, pixies, and some sort of undead peeled-looking dog-thing met in an underground escape-passage. These aren’t treated exactly as a genre writer would treat them, keen to point out how they’ve re-thought and revitalised standard tropes. Ishiguro handles them almost too lightly for the fantasy reader in me (though in a way that recalls Gene Wolfe). His ogres are almost never glimpsed fully or alive — the first appearance of one in the book, outside rumour, is of a severed lump of featureless flesh, at first mistaken for a head, later realised to be a sliced-off piece of shoulder, while another is seen dying at the bottom of a pit, covered in the remains of a torn-apart poisoned goat(!). The pixies are the most intriguing. They get one brief appearance:

“A sound made him turn, and he saw at the other end of the boat, still bathed in orange light, the old woman slumped against the bow with pixies – too many to count – swarming over her. At first glance she looked contented, as if being smothered in affection, while the small, scrawny creatures ran through her rags and over her face and shoulders. And now there came more and more out of the river, climbing over the rim of the boat.”

I’d like to know more about those pixies, but unlike your true fantasy author, I doubt Ishiguro intends The Buried Giant to be the first in a series, so that’s all we’re getting. The dragon, meanwhile — which I was quite prepared to accept was going to be wholly projected superstition — turns out to be an actual dragon, but like the creature met at the end of Le Guin’s Threshold, or Mayne’s A Game of Dark, one whose monstrousness only serves to emphasise the genuinely human element of the evil or wrongness that dominates The Buried Giant’s Britain, rather than being a full, Smaug-like evil in its own right.

The Buried Giant 03I found The Buried Giant patchy. Moments really worked for me. The way, for instance, the warrior Wistan sees a monastery the travellers visit as the re-purposed Saxon stronghold it is, down to the way various parts of it exist for no other reason than to trap and kill the enemy in the largest possible numbers. Occasionally, though — as with the last Ishiguro novel I read, and the one that put me off reading him, When We Were Orphans — I found the world and characters almost ludicrously unconvincing, as when Sir Gawain (in a slightly age-addled reverie, it has to be said), recalls helping a woman get revenge for the death of her husband. A battle is raging (or is just over), yet Gawain puts her on his horse, rides straight to the man she wants to kill, despatches the three other soldiers with him, and all without any sign of any other enemies, even though the man she wants to face is presumably important enough to be in some sort of encampment. And then another important character just wanders in. It’s more like the sort of abbreviated battle scene you get in Shakespeare, but at least there you accept the lack of realism because it’s being staged. Here, I just couldn’t help wishing Ishiguro had concentrated a bit on making it more realistically convincing, despite being fantasy. But then there’s the occasional bit of writing which surely even Le Guin would agree passes her Poughkeepsie test. There’s no denying this particular warrior is of Elfland (even though a Saxon):

‘The giant, once well buried, now stirs. When soon he rises, as surely he will, the friendly bonds between us will prove as knots young girls make with the stems of small flowers. Men will burn their neighbours’ houses by night. Hang children from trees at dawn. The rivers will stink with corpses bloated from their days of voyaging. And even as they move on, our armies will grow larger, swollen by anger and thirst for vengeance.’

It’s not a plot-driven book, but a theme-driven one, and as usual with such books, I find they may dissatisfy along the way, but they usually end well. The final chapter, in which the lesser buried secrets of Axl and Beatrice’s marriage are brought out and put to the test by a boatman who can only be the Ferryman himself, is both moving and meaningful. Elsewhere shot through with moments that work and some that don’t quite, I’d say The Buried Giant is not as good as it could have been were it a full-blown fantasy (which has often dealt with similar themes to Ishiguro’s — the Harry Potter series, for instance, in its later novels, deals with the past atrocities of Voldemort’s first spree and the way people try to forget this ever happened, and how this allows a new, fascistic magical government to gain power), but it didn’t leave me unsatisfied at the end.

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

steppenwolf_penguinHermann Hesse says in his 1961 Author’s Note to Steppenwolf (the book itself was first published in 1927), that this is the book of his that is ‘more often and more violently misunderstood than any other’, whose readers ‘perceived only half of what I intended’. And it’s easy to see why. A novel about the passage through the extremes of personal darkness to a renewed interest in life, it does the darkness so well, you can be inclined to think that’s all it’s about.

On a first reading, the thing that lingers most in the memory is the opening sections, where we’re introduced to Harry Haller, the middle-aged ‘Steppenwolf’ dragging himself through a weary, self-conflicted and exhausted life. A highly-cultured writer of independent means, he lives a transient existence, settling in boarding houses for a few months at a time, reading, walking, drinking, and wallowing in a constantly alternating self-disgust and a disgust with the modern world he lives in. Harry, we’re told, is ‘a genius of suffering’, seeing himself at times as a refined, poetic, cultured man, at others, a wild, dark-souled ‘wolf of the Steppes that had lost its way and strayed into the towns…’, constantly tearing at himself with his own too-sharp teeth:

‘For example, if Harry, as man, had a beautiful thought, felt a fine and noble emotion, or performed a so-called good act, then the wolf bared his teeth at him and laughed and showed him with bitter scorn how laughable this whole noble show was in the eyes of a beast…’

But then a little magic starts to seep into Harry’s life. Walking down a darkened street one night, he sees a door where there had not been one before, and above it a flickering neon sign:

MAGIC THEATRE
ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY
FOR MADMEN ONLY!

Something in his weary soul stirs, but the door is locked, and when he returns to try it again, it has disappeared entirely. He finds a man with a sign-board apparently advertising the event (now an ‘ANARCHIST EVENING ENTERTAINMENT’), but in response to his queries, all he gets is a pamphlet. Entitled ‘TREATISE ON THE STEPPENWOLF’, this pamphlet lays bare Harry’s deepest recesses, itemising his beliefs, his poses and psychological defences, while lightly mocking them as the self-delusions of a man who only thinks he’s drunk life to the dregs.

Bantam books edition, 1969

Bantam books edition, 1969

Up to this point, Harry seems the archetypal Outsider (as Colin Wilson defined the type): a sort of unfulfilled genius unable to accept bourgeois life, or perhaps any human life, growling behind the bars of some societal cage he’s seeking to escape or destroy, whatever the cost. This is the version of Steppenwolf that appears in the song that brought me to the book in the first place, Robert Calvert’s brooding incantation on Hawkwind’s 1976 album, Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music: ‘a wolf-man who despises the strivings of common men’, ‘half in love with dark and despair’. (Hawkwind’s “Steppenwolf” is, along with Queen’s “Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit“, one of the few works inspired by a novel that equal it in power, in my opinion.)

But after this evocation of a dark, self-devouring and suicidal soul at utter odds with the world he lives in, there comes salvation, though it’s not an easy one. After deciding to end his life, but unwilling to actually go back to his lodgings and face the task, Harry lingers in a late-night tavern, where he’s taken in hand by someone who seems his exact opposite, Hermine, a young woman of the hedonistic flapper generation. She gets Harry to eat a little, and drink a little, then makes him promise to do whatever she tells him to do, as a cure for his desperation. And what is her key commandment? Harry Haller, the ageing set-in-his-ways Steppenwolf, has to learn to dance — and not just dance, but dance to a form of music he despises, the jazz-dances of the age: the fox-trot, the Boston, and the Tango.

steppenwolf_penguin2Of course, this is just a symbol for the real process Harry and his Steppenwolf alter-ego must undergo. Harry and the Steppenwolf fight because they despise each other, but they are one person. The only way to find peace is for Harry to overcome his disgust at the Steppenwolf’s more earthy appetites for drink, for women, for anger, for destruction, for life. He has to learn to be whole, however ‘uncultured’ or ‘unrefined’ that whole is. For Harry is a man with ‘a profusion of gifts and powers which had not achieved harmony’, ‘always recognising and affirming with one half of himself, in thought and act, what, with the other half he fought against and denied’, suffering ‘the unendurable tension between inability to live and inability to die’. But, as Hermine says:

‘You have always done the difficult and complicated things and the simple ones you haven’t even learned.’

(Or, as he’s later told: ‘You are willing to die, you coward, but not to live.’)

Steppenwolf is based on Hesse’s own spiritual crisis of the 1920s. Just like his hero, Hesse spoke out against the growing fascistic elements in his post-war homeland, and was both reviled and exiled by the German elite of the day. Hesse applied to C G Jung for help, and some of what happens to Harry can be read in Jungian terms. Hermine is his anima, an imaginative embodiment of all he aspires to, all he needs in order to grow and live. As she herself says:

‘Doesn’t your learning reveal to you that the reason why I please you and mean so much to you is because I am a kind of looking-glass for you, because there’s something in me that answers you and understands you.’

But also she’s his Jungian shadow, the symbol for all he has repressed, despised or disowned: ‘Why, you’re my opposite,’ he tells her. ‘You have all that I lack.’

Hermann Hesse, image from The Dutch National Archives, via Wikipedia.

Hermann Hesse, image from The Dutch National Archives, via Wikipedia.

If this is so, then the final section of the book, when Harry finally gains entrance to the Magic Theatre, could be Jung’s idea of ‘Active Imagination’, a sort of self-healing through indulging in vivid waking daydreams and fantasies. For Harry, the Magic Theatre is a corridor with an infinite number of doors, each of which leads to a whole new world, a whole new existence, but always one that seeks to explore some unfulfilled aspect of himself. In one, his loathing for modernity is allowed free range in a war between men and machines, where he perches in a tree and takes potshots at passing automobiles; in another, he’s taught to break his personality into a thousand fragments and play with them like chess pieces; in another, he sees, acted out, the utter degradation of his inner wolf by his civilised man-self — then its equally degrading reversal… Only through living every aspect of himself to its fullest potential, through giving every despised and belittled and forgotten and dismissed part its full value, can Harry achieve unity and new life. As Pablo, dance-band saxophonist and proprietor of this Magic Theatre, tells him:

‘You have often been sorely weary of your life. You were striving, were you not, for escape? You have a longing to forsake this world and its reality and to penetrate to a reality more native to you, to a world beyond time. Now I invite you to do so. You know, of course, where this other world lies hidden. It is the world of your own soul that you seek. Only within yourself exists that other reality for which you long. I can give you nothing that has not already its being within yourself. I can throw open to you no picture-gallery but your own soul…’

Steppenwolf is about a man breaking free of a lifetime self-locked in inner conflict. Harry Haller achieves this by stepping out of reality itself — or, at least, reality as he has come, through disenchanted, weary and cynical eyes, to see it — to something that is magical, dangerous, but also healing and re-humanising. And behind it he glimpses another reality — a world of the Immortals, those greats such as Mozart and Goethe whom Harry venerates, but a world which, he’s at first distressed to learn, is infused not with seriousness and poetry and lofty ideals, but with an all-encompassing, all-accepting laughter. Laughter and fantasy, then, are the cure for Hesse’s Steppenwolf:

‘…the laughter of the immortals. It was a laughter without an object. It was simply light and lucidity. It was that which is left over when a true man has passed through all the sufferings, vices, mistakes, passions and misunderstandings of men and got through to eternity…’

Max von Sydow in Steppenwolf

Steppenwolf was filmed in 1974, with Max von Sydow in the lead — a perfect piece of casting. It remains faithful to the book, though perhaps too faithful for anyone who hasn’t read it to understand what’s going on at the end, I can’t help feeling. But it has some inspired moments — visualising the ‘Treatise on the Steppenwolf’ as a sort of Terry Gilliam-esque animation, for instance, really works. But the then-cutting edge video effects that dominate the Magic Theatre sequences now seem so dated as to make the whole thing feel like a bad 80s pop video wed to a 70s euro-arthouse film, all driven by a 60s sensibility. (Plus some truly awful dubbing.) For madmen only, perhaps.