When I first heard that Kazuo Ishiguro had a new novel out, and that it was a fantasy novel, I tried very hard to avoid the whole genre discussion that seemed immediately to develop. As you may have experienced yourself at some point, such things are easier said than done. And so I accidentally glimpsed two lines which seem to have helped establish the whole discussion’s background atmosphere. One (I’m paraphrasing here, but it’s a recurring theme among literary critics) was somebody’s complaint that a writer capable of producing decent literature would suddenly commit fantasy; and the other was somebody calling The Buried Giant a literary folly: to both of these arguments my inner five-year-old reacted by closing her eyes and covering her ears with her hands, singing, "LA LA LA LA LA LA LA" in a loud voice.
After all, telling a good story is not about genre. At all. Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro’s previous novel, is science fiction, and I liked it just as much as The Remains of the Day, which is very much a piece of literary fiction. Still, what makes these stories such enjoyable reads (even the dark bits) is that Ishiguro changes tone and narrative style book on book, and he always seems to choose a distinctive voice and protagonist that is just right for the story he wants to tell. Never Let Me Go wouldn’t work the way it does if it didn’t have a science fictional element.
So naturally I was very curious about The Buried Giant. I couldn’t shake the impression that the fantastic element was not just about immersing oneself in worlds that feature knights and dragons. And I wasn’t disappointed. The Buried Giant is set in England after a war between Saxons and Britons, in a sort of fantasy / historical fiction mashup; it is also a place of dragons, pixies, and ogres:
But such monsters were not cause for astonishment. People then would have regarded them as everyday hazards, and in those days there was so much else to worry about. How to get food out of the hard ground; how not to run out of firewood; how to stop the sickness that could kill a dozen pigs in a single day and produce green rashes on the cheeks of children. (p. 3)
Using commentary like this right from the start, the author establishes a world that is less magic realism than a very in-your-face setup of magic vs. realism. Quite unexpectedly, too, Axl and Beatrice, our heroes, turn out to be an elderly couple. Where they live, everyone’s memory is fading into a sort of mist: "It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past—even the recent one" (p. 7). Sometimes, when a character remembers a fragment of their own history, others will write it off as a dream. At other times, characters—such as the guards on a bridge—don’t remember what they are doing there, why they were sent there, or what their mission is. The effect is more than a little bizarre. I was reminded of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but even more so of the beginning of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. As you may guess, for the reader this can be as entertaining as it is tragic. Moreover, this fragmenting of memory, and the concomitant contradictory explanations of what the characters are experiencing or seem to remember at times, suggests a recurring motive, a possible way to read the whole story, which is that all of history is fiction. And like all fiction, a construct. History is made.
Axl and Beatrice depart on a journey to find their son’s village, the exact location of which they don’t know. This is very much not a hero’s journey, at least not according to literary rules and conventions. It is non-linear and told non-chronologically. Ishiguro keeps surprising us with unexpected turns, decisions, and outcomes. He changes perspective, and he also changes the scenery between chapters as if by jump cuts, so we get the impression that places A and B are not connected. There is no road leading from A to B (and indeed, he tells us that all of the Roman roads are now overgrown), and where there is no world-building, there is no world. All is conjecture.
The storytelling is also about setting priorities: the hero’s fear of a soiled bird’s feather falling down from the rafters onto his sleeping wife is more important than knowing exactly how they got to their current sleeping place. The narration also focuses a lot on the everyday: most of the time we observe characters chopping firewood, not battling monsters. This has the effect of de-romanticising these aspects of medieval romance. As the narrative voice tells us at the beginning, "I am sorry to paint such a picture of our country at that time, but there you are" (p. 5). In an early scene during their journey, which is also one of my favourite scenes of the book, Axl and Beatrice meet a ferryman, who takes single passengers to a mysterious isolated island and is described as standing in the boat while rowing it. And here Ishiguro sets one of the first of many markers for those readers who are looking for a meta-level, something more than immersive fantasy:
It was almost as if, coming across a picture and stepping inside it, they had been compelled to become painted figures in their turn (p. 37).
[. . .] "Good lady, the island this woman speaks of is no ordinary island. We boatmen have ferried many there over the years, and by now there will be hundreds inhabiting its fields and woods. But it’s a place of strange qualities, and one who arrives there will walk among its greenery and trees in solitude, never seeing another soul. [. . .]” (p. 42)
The boatman’s description recalls Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead. And indeed, the second time he mentions the ferryman, Ishiguro again compares the scene to a painting. The reader is now wary, looking out for more possible metaphors. This also implies several shifting realities: we keep coming across characters’ dreams, and various different perspectives on scenes and memories of scenes. Reality is not stable. Contradictory histories are being made up every moment. Even the characters themselves, finding signs and remnants of the past (in ruins etc.), piecing hints together, inventing backstory to explain them, are constantly making (and making up) history.
On their winding way of stops and detours and distractions, our erstwhile protagonists meet the inevitable travelling companions—in this case a Saxon warrior, a twelve-year-old boy exiled from his village, and Sir Gawain, a nephew of King Arthur (brutalised by fantasy literature countless times before). And even though they are introduced as heroic characters trained to fight, very little blood is spilled. Most of the time we only get a character’s account of violence that’s already in the past, sinking into the mist. The few times we actually witness a violent scene, it is fast and confusing. We never see a deadly blow, only its outcome. They seem to be unconnected. And especially in scenes connected to violence, Ishiguro’s fiction becomes dream-like. Time seems to slow. Even water is described as honey-like. Bit by bit, the story also dismantles the myth of the noble knight: while being a romantic fantasy—and it can definitely be read and enjoyed as one—its stance is also clearly anti-romance, and anti-fantasy. Good and noble knights can turn out to be butchers and bullies, while the enemy can turn out to be a decent human being. As Ishiguro has the Saxon warrior Wistan say, "It’s long ago and things take strange shapes in the mind" (p. 156).
A series of meetings and spontaneous decisions results in our heroes’ acquiring of some important information: the she-dragon Querig’s breath is the cause of the mist that obscures everybody’s memory. Thus, the dragon can clearly be read as a metaphor: fantasy is replacing history. And indeed, there is a constant haunting under the surface of the plot, becoming clearer in certain locations connected to past battles, then disappearing into the mist again. As Gawain explains: "I dare say sir, our whole country is this way. A fine green valley. A pleasant copse in the springtime. Dig its soil, and not far beneath the daisies and buttercups come the dead" (p. 186).
But is it a good idea to lift the mist, to remember the repressed past? Aren’t some things better forgotten—not only about the old couple’s personal history, but also about that of the country?
In the very first sentence of the book, Ishiguro contrasts his medieval fantasy world with modern England, and throughout the book he keeps telling us that all of this is set in a time and place before our neat hedgerows, our orderly villages. At the same time this contrast establishes a (historical, or at least mock-historical) connection to our time, and our reality. So while it’s very much possible to read and enjoy this novel as a piece of fantastic fiction, to read it for the knights and dragons and the sheer joy of the beautifully crafted style, it keeps tugging at us, suggesting more: other, deeper meanings. Something dark under the soil. Our soil.
In the end, far from all of these strings are tied up, and many questions remain unanswered. Which is, I must add, something I hugely enjoy. It keeps the reader on their toes. It may be unsatisfying to some, but it releases us back into our world, our reality, unsatisfied. And it keeps nagging at us. I think what might be most persistent is one big question at the centre of the plot, which is connected to the final grand metaphor that is only named and identified on page 324, the elephant in the room, The Buried Giant: is it justified to hate a whole people for the cruelties committed by some? Ishiguro does a great job of planting this question, and all it implies, into the readers’ heads and returning them to their own everyday lives a little changed. At least that’s what happened to me—so I daresay that The Buried Giant is a lot more than just a literary folly.
Christina Scholz writes from Graz, Austria, where she is currently working on her PhD thesis on M. John Harrison’s fiction. She has published articles on science fiction, Weird fiction and superhero comics in Alluvium and on Infinite Earths as well as short stories in The Big Click, Visionarium, and Wyrd Daze. She blogs at phoenixdreaming.wordpress.com.