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.
Is 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.
I 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.