The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, Publisher - Faber & Faber (United Kingdom), Random House (United States) 3 March 2015
Neil Gaiman comes across the creativity that exposed by the Nobel laureate author
Fantasy is a tool of the storyteller. It is a way of talking about things that are not, and cannot be, literally true. It is a way of making our metaphors concrete, and it shades into myth in one direction, allegory in another. Once, many years ago, a French translator decided that my novel "Stardust" was an allegory, based on and around John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress" (it wasn't), and somewhat loosely translated the book with footnotes to that effect. This has left me a little shy of talking about allegory, and very shy of ever mentioning "The Pilgrim's Progress."
Kazuo Ishiguro is a remarkable novelist, both for the quality of his work - because his novels share a careful, precise approach to language and to character - and because he does not ever write the same novel, or even the same type of novel, twice. In "The Buried Giant," his seventh, he begins with clear, unhurried, unfussy language to describe the England of some 1,500 years ago, in a novel as well crafted as it is odd. Some of the oddness comes from the medieval terrain:
This is a novel about an elderly couple going from one village to the next, set in a semi-historical England of the sixth or perhaps seventh century, in which the Britons and the Saxons have been at bloody war. The Britons have been driven west and the Saxons control the east of England, but Saxons and Britons live side by side in a post-Arthurian twilight, in a mythical time of ogres, sprites and dragons - most of all the dragon Querig, who dominates the second half of the book, in which one character needs to kill her as badly as another needs to keep her alive. Other oddities come from the characters, many of whom navigate their way through the story as if asleep and uncertain whether they will like what they find if they wake up.
"The Buried Giant" is a melancholy book, and the mist that breathes through it is a melancholic mist. The narrative tone is dreamlike and measured. There are adventures, sword fights, betrayals, armies, cunning stratagems and monsters killed, but these things are told distantly, without the book's pulse ever beating faster. They are described unflinchingly, precisely, sometimes poetically. Enemies are slain, but the deaths are never triumphant.
A culmination of a planned trap for a troop of soldiers, worthy of a whodunit, is described in retrospect, once we already know what must have happened. Stories drift toward us in the narrative like figures in the mist, and then are gone. The excitements that the book would deliver were this a more formulaic or crowd-pleasing novel are, here, when they appear, not exciting, perhaps because they would be young people's adventures, and this is, at its heart, a book about two people who are now past all adventure. Axl and Beatrice, gentle and caring and kind, wish only to survive, to reach their son, to be together. They need to remember their past, but they are afraid of what those memories might bring them.
At the heart of the novel is a philosophical conundrum, expressed first by an old woman whose husband has gone on before her, crossing the bar, as it were, to a mystical island to which she has not been allowed. (Were this an overt allegory like, say, "The Pilgrim's Progress," the river might be identified as the River of Death.) Only those couples who can prove to the boatman that their love is perfect and true, without bitterness or jealousy or shame, can cross the water together, in the same boat, to the island. "She went on speaking, about how this land had become cursed with a mist of forgetfulness," Beatrice tells us of this woman.
"And then she asked me: 'How will you and your husband prove your love for each other when you can't remember the past you've shared?' And I've been thinking about it ever since. Sometimes I think of it and it makes me so afraid." Not until the final chapter does Ishiguro unravel the mysteries and resolve the riddles: Who, really, are Axl and Beatrice? What has happened to their son? Where are they going? And, if they truly remember who they are, will they still be able to love each other in the same way?
Fantasy and historical fiction and myth here run together with the Matter of Britain, in a novel that's easy to admire, to respect and to enjoy, but difficult to love. Still, "The Buried Giant" does what important books do: It remains in the mind long after it has been read, refusing to leave, forcing one to turn it over and over. On a second reading, and on a third, its characters and events and motives are easier to understand, but even so, it guards its secrets and its world close.
Ishiguro is not afraid to tackle huge, personal themes, nor to use myths, history and the fantastic as the tools to do it. "The Buried Giant" is an exceptional novel, and I suspect my inability to fall in love with it, much as I wanted to, came from my conviction that there was an allegory waiting like an ogre in the mist, telling us that no matter how well we love, no matter how deeply, we will always be fallible and human, and that for every couple who are aging together, one or the other of them - of us - will always have to cross the water, and go on to the island ahead and alone. (excerpt)
The reviewer is an English author. The write-up has also appeared on www.nytimes.com
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