Kazuo Ishiguro wrote two of my all-time favorite novels, the very British stiff-upper-lip story The Remains of the Day and the brilliant dystopian tragedy Never Let Me Go, along with a handful of lesser books that featured his gorgeous prose but couldn’t match the two peaks for storycraft. His latest novel, The Buried Giant ($5.99 for Kindle right now), is a welcome return to form for the English author, offering a plot of simple scenes that lends itself to vast philosophical interpretation, in an unfamiliar milieu that blends beautifully (if anachronistically) with his classical prose.
The Buried Giant takes place in pre-medieval England, where the Saxons are gradually taking over from the native Britons and the land is shrouded in a mist that has caused all people enveloped within it to lose access to many of their long-term memories. An old couple within one settlement, built into a hillside network of caves, sets off on a journey to visit their son, who has moved to another village for reasons no longer clear to his parents, Axl and Beatrice. The pilgrimage goes awry quickly – unsurprising, as the pair don’t even know where their son might be – as they’re co-opted into a larger endeavor involving the warrior Wistan, a mysterious orphan Edwin, the Arthurian knight Gawain, and a dragon whose actual existence is unclear until the very end of the book.
Ishiguro’s Victorian phrasings are stilted in the mouths of his Germanic and Celtic characters, but the language seems to fit his fabulist aims – and, of course, an accurate rendering of their language would leave the book unreadable. Fable it is, however, without the pedantry of traditional fables, instead opening up ruminations on the weight of cultural trauma, coming to grips with the sins of the past, and our individual and collective abilities to move on with or without those memories. Is our ability to forget, at least at a superficial level, an asset or a liability? Is there true reconciliation without reckoning?
Axl and Beatrice end up in between two forces taking contrary approaches to these questions, one seeking to lift the fog, the other to preserve it, and are given the choice of sides to support, knowing that neither option is perfect. Choosing to lift the fog may advance the cause of the people of the region, but expose dormant conflicts between the two of them that have been lost to the mist. It’s the question every country’s leaders face after some horrible internal conflagration or genocide: will the long-term gains from a “truth and reconciliation” commission exceed the short-term pain and renewed enmity from reopening wounds so recently closed?
Ishiguro paints his characters in broad strokes here because the mist he’s created all but demands it; the characters feel round but vague, as if the mist itself is between the reader and the page. The precise, modern English in which the characters speak only adds to the perceived distance from us to the action – and there is action, by the way, not just a Tolkienesque walk through New Zealand landscapes with a lot of talking. Ishiguro plays with his narrative prerogative, shifting his view at times away from Axl and Beatrice, although they remain at the heart of the book, such as scenes that serve to emphasize the objection entrenched forces might have to any reexamination of the past. Oligarchy takes a beating here, but The Buried Giant is no polemic, so while Ishiguro concludes the book with a firm decision by the main characters, the ending is neither happy nor straightforward, much as post-war authorities must struggle with the question of lifting the fogs over their battered nations and dealing with the sins of the recent past.
Next up: Anita Okrent’s book on artificial langages (like Esperanto and, yes, Klingon), In the Land of Invented Languages: Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius.