A review of The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Buried Giant
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Faber Fiction (Distributed in Australia by Allen & Unwin)
March 2015, ISBN 9780571315048, Paperback, 352 pages, $29.99rrp

The Buried Giant has all the hallmarks of classic Ishiguro. It’s understated to the extreme. So much happens in subtext that it’s as if inference were the main plot, drawing meaning through layers of allegory. At the surface, surprisingly little happens, though the novel always seems on the brink of revelation and transition. The actual revelation doesn’t truly arrive until the very end, and even then, much remains unclear. The setting is Britain in 450 AD, and the two main characters, elderly husband and wife Axl and Beatrice, are on something of a quest to reach their son’s village, and perhaps recover some of their lost memories. Everyone seems to be under the spell of forgetting, due to the “mist” which surrounds the land. Most of the novel focuses on Axl and Beatrice’s attempts to recover both their memories and the sense of self that has disappeared with these memories. Hatred is impossible to maintain without memories, but so is identity and Axl is particular finds himself cut off from the man he once was – a man is recognised by others as he moves through his journey.

Ishiguro’s Britain is a land of fantasy: full of ogres, magic mists, a series of Charon-like ferrymen, a dragon, water pixies, and King Arthur, who is now dead, but whose faithful servant and nephew Sir Gawain remains to uphold the Arthurian legend.  Gawain has his own duties, which he claims involves slaying the dragon. Though not quite as much of a protagonist as the couple Axl and Beatrice, Gawain does get a first person narration in two chapters of part three, and it is clear that, like the others, he is not quite what he appears to be, though true to character, his chivalry remains undisputed. The rest of the narration is done in 3rd person, with Axl and Beatrice as the point of view characters, except for a few chapters that focus on a boy named Edwin, who was taken by an ogre and then returned to his village with a bite mark that turned him into an outcast, and his protector, a travelling knight named Weston, who, it turns out, also has a quest. The novel might seem like a simple fantasy adventure tale about dragons, chivalry and good versus evil, but anyone who has read any Ishiguro novels will known instantly that, despite the fact that none of the fantasy elements are metaphoric, this is a novel suffused with allegory, and a stark and almost depressing realism that shines a sharp light on modern society and raises questions that can’t easily be answered.

Though I won’t reveal too much, there are quite a few clues right from the start that hint at what the mist is or represents, and some of the key themes that run throughout the book. It’s clear that there is an underlying hostility between the Britons and the Saxons—and that these tensions, though difficult to hold onto in the face of the forgetting mist, are significant. There is also tension between Pagans and Christians, both of which have superstitions that drive behavior and can conflict so strongly with natural morality that people are able to justify the most amoral acts:

The pagans will not look beyond their superstitions. It’s their conviction that once bitten by a fiend, the boy will before long turn fiend himself and wreak horror here within our walls. They fear him and should he remain here, he’ll suffer a fate as terrible as any from which Master Wistan saved him last night. (81)

The great tenderness between Axl and Beatrice becomes another theme and raises a question that isn’t really answered in this book. Is love enough, particularly in a life where we have to selectively forget, and where we continue to lose those things that define us: not just memory, but community, a sense of home, and family or those we love:

He recalled Beatrice’s expression as she had stood before the bridge, changing from grave and guarded to the softly smiling one so dear to him. The picture now seized his heart, and at the same time made him fearful. A stranger – a potentially dangerous one at that – had but to say a few kindly words and there she was, ready to trust the world again. The thought troubled him and he felt the urge to run his hand gently over the shoulder now beside him. But had she not always been thus? Was it not part of what made her so precious to him? And had she not survived these many years with no great harm coming to her? (149)

The Buried Giant is not an easy book. Its simple prose belies the complexity of the narrative, and the multiple layers of meaning as Ishiguro presents us with extremes that are equally unpalatable, and both of which could well be seen as the modern condition. At times, the fog is enough to engulf the reader, and the work seems to be as obscure in its meaning as the location of Beatrice and Axl’s son’s village. At other times, it seems clear that the messages of The Buried Giant are timeless – that we never really know, even when the mist clears, what we’re fighting for, what the limits of love are, and how we will live against the pain and loss of our own personal, and collectively violent histories.