Almost no memory | A review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant

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.

Charon, Joachim Patinir

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 knowingnot 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],

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Memory of Past Fragrments — Leonor Fini

Mémoire Des Fragments Passés (Memory of Past Fragments), 1984 by Leonor Fini (1908-1996)

To write often means remembering what never existed (Clarice Lispector)

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Almost no memory | A review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant

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.

Charon, Joachim Patinir

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 knowingnot 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.

DFW’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, books as memory objects, etc.

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On our short walk home from her school yesterday, my darling daughter inquires if we can go to the bookstore. She needs some new Junie B. Jones, she reports. I assent.

This particular bookstore is about a mile away, a big labyrinth of shelves and stacks and strange little closets crammed with books. The owner once kindly estimated to me that the place houses somewhere between one million and two million books, but probably not more than three million books. The place is a hive, or better yet a brain. An archive.

On this warmish January afternoon, a coverless paperback wedged and warped keeps the front door propped open. My daughter doesn’t dally, fetching up a bevy of Ms. Jones’ adventures (and the third volume of Ivy + Bean to boot: “It’s Ivy “plus” Bean, not Ivy “and” Bean, her graceful correction).

We have a few minutes before we need to pick up my son, so I do a fairly regular patrol about the premises, looking for a copy of Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies for a colleague. No dice. And, out of weird old habits, go past the last shelf, where Vollmann’s underattended tomes rest near David Foster Wallace novels, always depleted. I like to look at the new covers, I guess.

Well so and anyway, I spied a pristine hardcover copy of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, clearly never read, and thought, Oh hey, this must be a first edition. Which it was and Oh hey you don’t need this book.

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There is nothing rare or especially valuable about a first hardback U.S. edition of Hideous Men. The store is selling it for half of the publisher’s recommended price, but I have more than enough credit (thanks unsolicited review copies!) to pick it up. Which I do. Despite of course already owning it in the far more flexible trade paperback edition (first edition!) inscribed by some of the dearest damn friends who gave it to me for a birthday, an edition I reread memorably over a few weeks in Italy, an edition warped by strange moistures (I’d love to pretend the warping arose from the salty splash of the ancient Mediterranean but my own body sweat is a far more likely culprit).

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Brief Interviews is my favorite collection of David Foster Wallace stories. The stories here are much better than those in his first collection, Girl with Curious Hair (which, the first DFW I read, has a special place in my gizzards), and though there’s nothing here that can touch the best moments of Oblivion (“The Suffering Channel” and “Good Old Neon”), the collection is cohesive, propulsive, engaging, its longer pieces punctuated by blips and vignettes. Here is the first selection, “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life”:

When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed very hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.

The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.

So I picked up the hardback first edition, realizing that what I really wanted (in addition to this edition that I didn’t and don’t really need) was the copy that I read in college, the copy I borrowed from UF’s Library West (I’ll pay you $10,000 if you can think of a better library name, which you can’t), a flat brown squashed brick—-I must’ve been one of the first to read it, this was in ’99 or early ’00—I checked it out three times and then I had to return it. I ripped off “Adult World (I)” and “Adult World (II)” (these are actually the same story, but…) for a project in some bullshit class I was taking at the time, some class called Post-Historical Visual Culture or some other such nonsense—I didn’t rip off the plot, but the structure, the whole narrative/outline thing that Wallace did there. (My story was about a geneticist trying to clone a son or maybe someone to love, I can’t recall, shudder to recall…And why was I turning in a story and not an essay?!).

Why do I want the very edition that I first read, Dewey’s decimals imprinted on its drab jacketless spine? Why do I want an object that proclaims first, first, first, even though I don’t need it—why the compulsion? And then the sentimental compulsion to keep a less sturdy paperback version just because my name is incribed in itjust because I recall so vividly shaving my beard in Minori in Amalfi after reading “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko” and realizing that Oh my god this story is fucking terrible, DFW, I get what you’re doing, but my god. 

A book is a memory object, a placeholder, a bookmark for the memory of the reading experience, because we don’t remember what we read, not really. I have a few novels committed to memory (more or less) through yearly rereading, through teaching, but on the whole the details fade, the misremembering opens to misreading. My dream is to disband all of my books, march them out into the world, my memory secure, transcendent, stable, eternal, etc.—the objects gone, their dusty physicality imprinted in some psychic library of the soul. But I don’t believe in my dream, and even though I dig e-books, they don’t shock my memory in the same way that old pressed leaves do. So I live with these guys, nestled together unnecessarily, necessarily so.

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“On the Back of a Photograph” — János Pilinszky

photograph

“Memory” — Two Notes from Samuel Butler’s Note-Books

Memory

i

Memory is a kind of way (or weight – whichever it should be) that the mind has got upon it, in virtue of which the sensation excited endures a little longer than the cause which excited it.  There is thus induced a state of things in which mental images, and even physical sensations (if there can be such a thing as a physical sensation) exist by virtue of association, though the conditions which originally called them into existence no longer continue.

This is as the echo continuing to reverberate after the sound has ceased.

ii

To be is to think and to be thinkable.  To live is to continue thinking and to remember having done so.  Memory is to mind as viscosity is to protoplasm, it gives a tenacity to thought – a kind of pied à terrefrom which it can, and without which it could not, advance.

Thought, in fact, and memory seem inseparable; no thought, no memory; and no memory, no thought.  And, as conscious thought and conscious memory are functions one of another, so also are unconscious thought and unconscious memory.  Memory is, as it were, the body of thought, and it is through memory that body and mind are linked together in rhythm or vibration; for body is such as it is by reason of the characteristics of the vibrations that are going on in it, and memory is only due to the fact that the vibrations are of such characteristics as to catch on to and be caught on to by other vibrations that flow into them from without – no catch, no memory.

—From Samuel Butler’s Note-Books.