My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the few living Anglophone writers I’d bet the proverbial farm on. If literature in this language is still being read in 200 years, they’ll be reading him. His fiction has that quality that I’ve never been able to define properly, a quality I find in Virgil and Dante, Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, Joyce and Woolf: his novels feel both constructed and alive, somewhere between objects and landscapes, and they solicit the most abstract forms of intellectual scrutiny even as they provoke the most intimate emotions.* Maybe this is only my private test of “canonicity,” but most works, including my own, fall short of this standard—they are either too of the world (mimetic social realism) or too out of it (most genre fiction and the avant-garde) to matter to me as much as Ishiguro’s novels do, novels that are worlds within our, or my, world.
Christine Smallwood begins her Harper’s review of The Buried Giant—the best I’ve read so far (not online, alas)—this way:
Why does nobody talk about Kazuo Ishiguro? Never in my life has someone recommended an Ishiguro novel to me, and I am a person to whom people frequently recommend novels. Fashion recycles the past, but literary taste, for the new and the newly reissued, has a brutally short memory: Roberto Bolaño, Robert Walser, Renata Adler, Chris Kraus, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Elena Ferrante—the wheels spin on. Still, faddism alone doesn’t explain the silence around Ishiguro. When you tell a fellow admirer that you are a recent convert, as I am, you often get something like a shrug, as if you have just suggested that The Great Gatsby is a ripper of a yarn. Others back away slowly, admitting grudging respect but no enthusiasm.
I wondered as I read this what Smallwood meant by “nobody.” Ishiguro is a bestselling author, so he has a wide audience among common readers; on the other hand, as I can attest, he is also increasingly popular in literary academia, widely assigned in undergraduate courses and a frequent subject of scholarship. “Nobody” seems to mean, then, that he has no great following among the arbiters of literary fashion—the para-academic institutions of the little magazines and their subcultures and scenesters, online and off-. Most of the hip writers tend to allow their readers to bathe in the last light of revolutionary romanticism, whereas Ishiguro bars this possibility. His novels allow us to imagine something like a life after Progress, after Prometheus. Since this position is hard to map according to the received ideological coordinates of contemporary literature, Ishiguro has to content himself with the regard of present-minded common readers and historically perspicacious scholars, while all the sad young literary men and women waste their days fighting the last century’s wars.
Anyway, enough preamble. The Buried Giant—masterpiece or misfire? It is too uneven to count as a masterpiece, I think, but too wonderfully strange to be a misfire. Ostensibly a historical fantasy set in post-Arthurian Britain, a world of dragons, ogres, pixies, and wars between Celt and Saxon, the novel’s setting—and its almost pageant-like set-pieces, at once horrifying, funny, and sad—nevertheless more nearly resemble the Britain of King Lear than anything I have ever encountered in orthodox fantasy fiction or film (not that I am a connoisseur of the genre, admittedly). The novel begins when an old Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice, sets out on a journey through Saxon territory to find their lost son. They are quickly waylaid by the contested country’s dire political situation, in which the uneasy peace between Saxon and Briton depends on the fragile and fantastic means of a dragon, Querig, whose breath suspends human memory. Memory is dangerous because it would restore to the warring populations their knowledge of what they have done to each other and begin again the cycle of violence; on the other hand, memory is necessary to personal identity and relationships, as Axl and Beatrice, who cannot remember much of their marriage, often complain as they join the quest to slay Querig. On their journey, Axl and Beatrice pass through a fractious Saxon town and a secret-filled abbey, encountering the Saxon warrior Wistan and his protégé, young Edwin, along with the character who is perhaps the novel’s grandest invention—Sir Gawain, portrayed here as a senescent but charismatically powerful figure, half legendary knight and half doddering old genocidaire. The narrative loses force in the middle, becoming too preoccupied with some of the silly side adventures it narrates—a scene where pixies attack was impossible for me to picture as anything but bad CGI, for instance. But its extraordinary conclusion, as affecting as anything in Ishiguro or pretty much any other writer, redeems all.
The critics have not, to my mind, given readers a sufficient sense of The Buried Giant‘s vital strangeness. Ursula K. Le Guin complains that Ishiguro has, due to snobbish neglect of genre-fantasy rules, not done proper “world-building.” With a worryingly philistine insensitivity to the novel’s peculiar affect, she writes, “A fantastic setting requires vivid and specific description; while characters may lose touch with their reality, the storyteller can’t.” One might as well complain that Beckett, not having read his Heinlein and Asimov, fails to detail the post-apocalyptic calamity that has befallen the world in Endgame. The world of The Buried Giant is as finished as it needs to be for a setting that is more than half metaphor, a setting that eventually comes to seem a metaphor for metaphor itself.
James Wood wants to read the novel as allegory and objects that the allegory is unfinished: for what in our world is represented by the omnipresent memory-obliterating dragon’s breath that afflicts the novel’s world? Aside from the fact that an answer readily comes to mind—mass media—I doubt The Buried Giant is nearly as allegorical as Wood thinks, if allegory indicates a one-to-one correspondence between each element of the text and its subtext. Ishiguro is not usually so literal; I think his metaphors are deliberately suggestive and open-ended, the better to linger in the mind.**
Mark O’Connell argues in a laudatory review that the novel embodies Benjamin’s famous dictum about civilization and barbarism, as if it were something like early Coetzee but with more special effects. While this is not wholly wrong, Ishiguro hardly suggests that knowledge of the violence underlying all political orders could ameliorate that violence; nothing is more alien to Ishiguro’s sensibility than Benjamin’s messianism. In fact, The Buried Giant never quite settles the question of whether or not the memory-depriving mist is a good or bad thing; the novel does not dismiss the classic conservative argument that peace and order are better than knowledge. In this, The Buried Giant strongly resembles The Unconsoled, also set in time and place of recent mass historical violence—Central Europe at the end of the 20th century—and featuring a protagonist whose name, Ryder, has chivalric implications. A novel set in the anxiety dreams of its pianist hero, who comes to Central Europe to play a concert he never gets to perform, The Unconsoled contains a vein of satire that mocks all attempts to mobilize the arts in behalf of any collective political project, whether left, right, or in-between (Ryder’s hosts tellingly want a lecture, not music). Ryder only achieves one successful musical performance, and it takes place in an isolated cabin, where it is overheard by one other person. That is the truth of art, The Unconsoled implies, and the truth of our lives. Needless to say, such nihilistic aesthetics do not square with O’Connell’s postcolonial cultural politics.
Finally, Tim Martin calls the novel “affectless,” as if its style were some mere mistake on Ishiguro’s part. But read this paragraph of description, which comically runs a fussy bureaucratic rhetoric up against a setting customarily described in tones of high archaism:
Once inside it, you would not have thought this longhouse so different from the sort of rustic canteen many of you will have experienced in one institution or another. There were rows of long tables and benches, and towards one end, a kitchen and a serving area. Its main difference from a modern facility wool have been the dominating presence of hay: there was hay above one’s head, and beneath one’s feet, and though not by design, all over the surface of the tables, blown around by the gusts that regularly swept through the place. On a morning such as this, as our traveller sat down to breakfast, the sun breaking through the porthole-like windows would have revealed the air itself to be filled with drifting specks of hay.
Nobody writes this way by accident (e.g., “serving area”), so what is Ishiguro trying to do?
At first, as Smallwood points out in her review, The Buried Giant appears to be Ishiguro’s first novel written in the third person; chapters alternate among the perspectives of various characters and, in truth, this is the novel’s greatest weakness. Unused to this form of narration, Ishiguro sometimes stoops to mere convention, beginning chapters with cloying suspense in medias res and indulging in flashbacks in free indirect discourse. You can read this kind of thing in almost any other novel, literary or genre, and I was eventually bored by it; the chapters devoted to the Saxon boy, Edwin, especially fall flat. Ishiguro is usually brilliant at evoking children from the outside, from what adults can’t help but regard as their strange exterior; but Edwin’s inner monologue is not compelling enough to have so many pages devoted to it.
Much better are the long scenes in almost play-like dialogue, wherein the characters make absurdly deferential and polite speeches to one another in high-sounding language. Such a style is not unique to this novel in Ishiguro’s oeuvre—Ishiguro’s characters are always trying, periphrastically, to maintain their dignity in calamitous situations—but it takes on new tones of tragicomedy in the novel’s thin, blasted, and legendary setting. It is wonderfully startling to hear Sir Gawain sound like a melancholy fool out of Chekhov as he converses with his mortal enemy, Sir Wistan, just before they fight to the death:
“I’ll confess, Master Wistan, my hope’s that even now Querig’s breath will rob you of the memory of why you walk beside me. I await eagerly your asking where it is I lead you! Yet I see from both your eye and step you forget little.”
Wistan smiled. “I believe, sir, it’s this very gift to withstand strange spells won me this errand from my king. For in the fens, we’ve never know a creature quite like this Querig, yet have known others with wonderful powers, and it was soon noticed how little I was swayed, even as my comrades swooned and wandered in dreams. I fancy this was my king’s only reason to choose me, for almost all my comrades at home are better warriors than this one walks beside you now.”
“Impossible to believe, Master Wistan! Both report and observation tell of your extraordinary qualities.”
[Spoiler warning.] The novel’s final chapter is narrated in the first person, from the perspective of a mysterious boatman, probably the Charon of mythology. When we understand this, we remember the several first person digressions the narrator has made throughout the novel; then we come to understand that this ferryman, this wanderer between the shores of life and death, has been telling us the story all along. Does he have a story about each of his passengers? And isn’t it appropriate that he veer between a diffident and polite bureaucratic rhetoric and an observer’s posture, like that of a play’s spectator? (Martin censures the novel’s “weird lurches between lassitude and melodrama,” but I think they catch something true to experience.) As a watcher from the edge of life, who has no doubt seen it all, why should he need a grander or more overbearing or more consistent or more lyrical style? Maybe he is the secret narrator of all Ishiguro’s novels. Maybe he is the secret narrator of all novels.
*I should say here that I like Ishiguro enough to ration the pleasure: I still have not read A Pale View of Hills or When We Were Orphans.
**Or to invite the reader to research. The dragon’s name, Querig, appears to allude to Quérigut, a commune in an area in southern France that was particularly devastated in the Albigensian Crusade. I take it that Ishiguro, who portrays the Arthurian Britons as genocidal aggressors, deploys this allusion to suggest that it is the Arthurian knights and their culture, as evoked on the U.S. edition’s cover by an image of the Holy Grail and as materialized in the civilization of the doomed Cathars, who will eventually be wiped from the map of Europe. In this way, Ishiguro defeats any attempt we might make to view his novel through a simple good vs. evil or oppressor vs. victim lens. With this reference to the Cathars, Ishiguro too manages to situate his novels’ own unworldliness and quasi-nihilism in a longer tradition. James Wood misses the significance of the dragon’s name, even though I found it with a minute’s detective work on Google. So much for “official” criticism’s obvious superiority to what you find on blogs.