In Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2015 novel The Buried Giant, a metaphysical mist engulfs sixth-century Britain, clouding the memories of all who inhabit the land. Saxons and Britons alike cannot recall their bellicose past. Against this mist, elderly Britons Axl and Beatrice seek their long-lost son. They meet a Saxon warrior who hunts an ancient she-dragon he’s vowed to slay. He’s aided by a youth, Edwin, who’s been exiled from his village after being bitten by a mythic creature. King Arthur’s aged nephew Sir Gawain lingers as a courtly protector, a figure from an already-bygone era; the mist seems to slowly rot his brain and his conscience, pushing him into paranoia and madness. There are Charonic ferrymen and awful ogres; there are mad monks and terrible pixies. A hellhound, a dragon, a poisoned goat. Rivers and mountains and crypts and villages. But most of all that mist.
Ishiguro makes the reader experience that mist. He obscures. The action that occurs—and yes, there’s action here, measured action (often measured in a literal sense)—the action that occurs in The Buried Giant is almost always oblique, shadowed, indistinct, but also very mechanical. The memory-mist renders the world treacherous, immediate, a dark, vague place that offers its travelers no purchase of reference. Deceptive.
Forgive me for quoting at such length, but I think a longish passage here shows how and what Ishiguro is doing. Almost all of our principals are here, underground—note their procession, their movement—a constant motif in the novel, movement, single file or side by side—and the presence of a light, illumination—also a motif. Note the variety of interpretations of not knowing, not seeing, note the simple horror:
They went on into the tunnel, Sir Gawain leading, Axl following with the flame, Beatrice holding his arm from behind, and Edwin now at the rear. There was no option but to go in single file, the passage remaining narrow, and the ceiling of dangling moss and sinewy roots grew lower and lower until even Beatrice had to stoop. Axl did his best to hold the candle high, but the breeze in the tunnel was now stronger, and he was often obliged to lower it and cover the flame with his other hand. Sir Gawain though never complained, and his shape going before them, sword raised over his shoulder, seemed never to vary. Then Beatrice let out an exclamation and tugged Axl’s arm.
“What is it, princess?”
“Oh, Axl, stop! My foot touched something then, but your candle moved too quickly.”
“What of it, princess? We have to move on.”
“Axl, I thought it a child! My foot touched it and I saw it before your light passed. Oh, I believe it’s a small child long dead!”
“There, princess, don’t distress yourself. Where was it you saw it?”
“Come, come, friends,” Sir Gawain said from the dark. “Many things in this place are best left unseen.”
Beatrice seemed not to hear the knight. “It was over here, Axl. Bring the flame this way. Down there, Axl, shine it down there, though I dread to see its poor face again!”
Despite his counsel, Sir Gawain had doubled back, and Edwin too was now at Beatrice’s side. Axl crouched forward and moved the candle here and there, revealing damp earth, tree roots and stones. Then the flame illuminated a large bat lying on its back as though peacefully asleep, wings stretched right out. Its fur looked wet and sticky. The pig-like face was hairless, and little puddles had formed in the cavities of the outspread wings. The creature might indeed have been sleeping but for what was on the front of its torso. As Axl brought the flame even closer, they all stared at the circular hole extending from just below the bat’s breast down to its belly, taking in parts of the ribcage to either side. The wound was peculiarly clean, as though someone had taken a bite from a crisp apple.
“What could have done work like this?” Axl asked.
He must have moved the candle too swiftly, for at that moment the flame guttered and went out.
Ishiguro gives us mystery, interpretation, and then an incomplete, ambiguous revelation. (This is the basic structure of the novel). Beatrice never relents in her belief that she’s stumbled over a dead child. Brimming with lost children and lost parents and orphans, The Buried Giant is a novel of erasures. But an erasure leaves a trace, a violent, visceral marking into the page’s blankness. Revelation through absence.
We would have no plot, not really, without some overcoming of blankness, and Axl in particular overcomes the mist in his quest. A backstory fleshes out, in watery strokes albeit. The Buried Giant, as far as fantasy epics go, is awfully indistinct. Or rather, Ishiguro offers only mechanical and immediate glimpses into this world, a Britain on the cusp of the Middle Ages. Through Axl’s consciousness (and conscience), we see the vital precision in hand-to-hand combat, for example. Its patience, its slowness, its dependence on muscle memory. Or perhaps (dare I say) more boringly, we feel the very real peril involved in walking in the wild dark as an elderly person. The thrills in The Buried Giant come not from its sword and sorcery costumes, but from its Kafkaesque edges and gaps. This is a novel about not knowing.
And it’s here that The Buried Giant is most successful—as an evocation of not knowing. Axl and Beatrice’s quest unfolds as a series of choices and consequences severed, for the most part, from the anchor of memory. There’s an episodic vibe to the novel, a sense that it’s making itself up as it goes along. (It’s not). The novel strongly reminded me of some of the old RPGs I’d play on a Commodore 64 as a kid. The graphics weren’t great and I had to use my imagination a lot. The games were sometimes frustrating and slow. But perhaps you want a more, uh, literary comparison? Something more recent too? The Buried Giant recalls Ishiguro’s short story “A Village after Dark” a lot more than, say, A Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings. It’s a fantasy novel, but one that feels etiolated, its vivid colors drained. More Gustave Doré than Gustave Moreau.
While a precise indistinctness (forgive the oxymoron) is part of The Buried Giant’s program, there’s nothing indistinct about its heroes’ love for each other. Axl and Beatrice, A & B—can I say I came to love them? Or if I didn’t quite love them, I was rooting for them, say? Rooting for their survival, but specifically their survival as a they, a shared survival. Ishiguro successfully communicates their intimacy, their romance, their love, a love threatened by both the natural world and the supernatural return of lost memory. Their relationship is the heart of the novel upon which Ishiguro fixes his themes of memory, justice, vengeance, and love. Ishiguro’s commentary on those themes ultimately may feel pessimistic to many readers, particularly in the novel’s conclusion.
Excepting the ones that we love and return to and obsess over, we retain little of the novels that we read. What memories remain are kernels—the outline of a plot, a strange lingering phrase or detail, a bright or bold character, a theme, an idea, an image. It’s the love between Axl and Beatrice that I’ll likely recall most strongly from the shadows of The Buried Giant. If we can’t remember, we can at least experience.
[Editorial note: Biblioklept originally published this review in October, 2015],