Amnesia as Allegory? Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant

Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Buried Giant. Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2015.

IMGP0204 - Version 2You may have noticed that I actually listed this book under my Currrently Reading tab at least a couple of months ago. Perhaps the length of time it took me to read this book is sufficient to reveal that it didn’t hold my interest.

When I try to sum up my evaluation of Ishiguro, I’m tempted to say that it is his subtlety that is the defining characteristic of his fiction. The problem with subtlety is possibly that sometimes it can lead to something so understated that the reader misses it. I think this is what happened to me in this book. I got bogged down and found myself reading for duty, taking a chapter or two just before bed because I felt I ought to, and because I have dim recollections of the idea somehow being imprinted on my mind way back in primary school that one had to finish every book one starts. Of course one doesn’t. But then, way back when I was in primary school “they” insisted that you eat everything that was put one one’s plate for the healthy(?) school lunch. Of course, “they” had to let you go home at the end of the school day even though you’d spent all afternoon looking at congealed dehydrated mashed potato decorated with beetroot. But I digress, and, I trust, times have changed. Nevertheless, I did feel I somehow owed it to Ishiguro to finish the book.

IMGP0204 - Version 2Set in the period often referred to as The Dark Ages, that time when the Romans are gone and the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes are making their incursions into what would eventually be known as England, the novel ought to have interested me. This period, because we have to rely on what historians might define as rather doubtful sources for background, has provided all sorts of writers with a setting for novels, especially when it comes to dealing with King Arthur. Sir Gawain makes his appearance here, old, tired, and riding a horse called Horace. I think I prefer him as presented by the author of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and “The Pearl.”

IMGP0204 - Version 2Axl and Beatrice, Britons, are making their way on foot to their son’s village, but they aren’t quite sure why. Their memories are fogged; they cannot remember; things are obscured by mist. We ultimately find out why everyone has trouble with his or her memory, but I’m afraid by the end of the book I didn’t actually care. Their journey leads them to an uneasy alliance with a Saxon warrior and to encounters with monks both vicious and kind. Their journey takes them through a wilderness landscape occasionally tamed by human settlement, and they must deal with the possibility of a dragon, ogres, and tumultuous pixies.

IMGP0204 - Version 2The book has all the makings of a fantastic romp, but it isn’t a romp. Its mood is melancholic and anxious. The characters have vague recollections of how things once were different; some characters may have met each other before, but they cannot remember, and they are afraid. Somewhere in the past, there may have been betrayals, misunderstandings, deaths, sins unforgiven and unatoned.

IMGP0204 - Version 2One senses the possibility of allegory in the novel, but one has to search for it, and in common with Axl and Beatrice one just isn’t sure. Is Ishiguro asking us to consider how unreliable memory is and how we construct our world view upon very shaky foundations? Possibly. Is he asking us to notice how our own civilization is passing? Possibly. Earlier, I commented on how for me his defining characteristc is his subtlety. This subtlety works so well in The Remains of the Day and so powerfully in Never Let Me Go that I will never read that book again and didn’t see the movie because I found his premise too credible and appalling. However, if I compare The Remains of the Day with The Buried Giant, I find that the understatement of the first person narrator and the shifting time frames in The Remains of the Day gradually and quietly reveal to me the awful truth about what really occurred, and I care. In The Buried Giant, I find the understatement, what New Yorker reviewer James Wood refers to as “blandness” (New Yorker 23 March 2015 Web), simply bland and unengaging. Too much is held back for too long so that when there is some revelation at the end of the novel, I didn’t care.

IMGP0204 - Version 2As I think more about Ishiguro’s fiction as I write this, I am tempted to say that his novels also all share a growing sense of menace and of characters’ inability to do much to combat that menace. There’s often a sense of inevitability and powerlessness that his characters cannot overcome, a pessimism accepted not so much with resignation but with the apathy that comes from trying too hard to avoid resignation. Recurring themes are love, loyalty, and betrayal. These are all to be found in The Buried Giant, and I realise that Ishiguro is addressing the social and political implications of collective amnesia. Nevertheless, I am still left at the end of the novel feeling somehow disappointed.

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