Thursday, 21 May 2015

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

The first book I read by Kazuo Ishiguro was An Artist of the Floating World. I had taken my son up to Warwick University for an open day, and while he looked round, I bought this from the book shop. (I wonder if it still has one? Neither Bristol nor Exeter, where I've recently been working, appears to have one - which I find bizarre beyond words...) I read it in one sitting: I found it completely absorbing. I was fascinated by the world that was described - Japan pre and after the second world war, and by Ishiguro's subtle manipulation of the reader's response through his viewpoint (and unreliable) narrator.

Since then, I've read and enjoyed some of his books but found others more challenging. Now I've just read The Unburied Giant, his most recent one. The setting - a just post-Arthurian Britain - is very different from his other books, but there's a similarity about the voice, which is calm, apparently reflective and rational - almost monotonous. He certainly doesn't go in for flourishes. It's a semi-fantasy world, peopled with ogres, pixies, demons and a dragon - though none of these seem very real, and the ogres and pixies in particular don't appear to have an obvious purpose. (Well, not to me - though I'm probably just being dense.)

Arthur is dead, and the Saxons and Britons are living in a slightly uneasy harmony. Relations between the two communities are eased by a strange forgetfulness, which Axl and Beatrice, the elderly couple whose quest for their son forms the central narrative, call the 'mist'. They are puzzled by the way snatches of memory tantalise and then elude them; they want to regain their memories of the past, but they come to suspect that there may be things that would better remain hidden.

Along the way they meet other significant characters - notably Wistan, a brave Saxon warrior, and Sir Gawain, Arthur's nephew, now elderly (and a little reminiscent of the knight with the Questing Hound in T H White's A Once and Future King), and sometimes comical, but still noble and courageous. And they meet the boatman, a Charon-like figure (or is he an angel? He's described once as having a 'shining back', and he does his duty with a kind of sorrowful determination) who, it seems, cannot ultimately be escaped.

I don't think it's a particularly successful creation of a fantasy world, but I think that probably wasn't what Ishiguro was interested in. It's an allegory, with huge things to say about love, memory, war, reconciliation - about the very nature of humanity, which seems to leap from one conflict to another. A terrible onslaught is foreshadowed at the end of the book - one which took place fifteen centuries ago: but what have we learnt? Not a lot, when you cast a quick eye over the news.

This is just a preliminary response; it's not a book that reveals everything it contains in one quick reading.

Would love to hear anyone else's thoughts!


  1. I have this book by my bedside table, but haven't started it yet, always useful to have a heads up about allegory from the start!

  2. I need to be in the right moment for reading books like this, and I'm not sure that's right now, right here. However I will watch out for this title on library shelves later in the year. I'm glad that it's a one-sitting book, especially with the mix of Ishiguro's voice:"calm, apparently reflective and rational - almost monotonous"and his allegorical purpose. The Buried Giant does sound more like an autumn/winter book. (I remember rather opposing reviews around publication.) Thanks.

  3. This isn't a one-sitting book, Penny - I've had quite a bit of time for reading in the last couple of days. It was 'An Artist of the Floating World' which was a one-sitting book. Really love that one...