I love it when “literary” authors dip their toes (or better yet, dive in head-first) into the world of more fantastic or science-fictional literature. Sure, they sometimes get accused of “slumming” (as Ursula LeGuin apparently suggested could be the case, depending how how Ishiguro framed his new novel–from what I hear, she has retracted this comment), but that’s more a matter of how they represent their relationship to genre fiction–as for me, I just love seeing someone do something new with this particular toolbox. Those unused to the genre may still fall prey to tired iterations of the formulae of fantasy and sci-fi, but they at least tend to do it in very different ways than the usual “ghetto” authors (and sorry for still using that ghetto metaphor–I’m starting to feel a bit uncomfortable with it, but I haven’t hit on another yet), and at best these authors are a bit more conscious than their genre-peers of the particular potential of the fantastic or science-fictional mode for their topic.
Given all this, I was excited to run across Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. While I hadn’t yet read anything by him, I knew that he is most famous for his novel The Remains of the Day (maybe more famous as the movie) and thought it would be interesting to see what he was doing in this corner of the literary world. Apparently a couple of his other novels have edged towards the fantastic, one being read as magical realism by many critics and another as science fiction–more that I have to read now…
With The Buried Giant Ishiguro puts the fantastic, as well as the sense of the primordial and mythic that we associate with Arthurian and Anglo-Saxon England, to work in an exploration of memory and forgetting (two very intimately intertwined phenomena, as is often pointed out in memory studies within the humanities) at the level of both larger (ethnic) communities and individual relationships. The scene of the novel is post-Arthurian England, the land in a state of mysterious forgetfulness in the decades following the death of the King of the Britons, ogres roaming the countryside (though as a matter of course, rather than a special state of affairs), a giant buried beneath the landscape (how literal is this to be taken? though most of the other supernatural elements seem to clearly play out just as much at the literal as at the symbolic level), a dragon sleeping in the mountains, whose role in the story I will let you discover for yourself. We start following the story through the eyes of the aged pair Axl and Beatrice, and their journey to find their son is the central quest, even if it gets caught up in a much grander quest. Stereotypical fantasy “grandness” is avoided, however–there is plenty of blood, but you don’t leave a fight scene feeling like Conan the Barbarian, covered in blood and glorying in it. Certainly for duels (there are at least a couple) you leave feeling that a real person has died, not a cardboard enemy, and even the monster fights have a satisfying anti-climatic quality, a quickness in the moment of death that actually leaves more room for death in the narrative than a hack-n-slash would. Sword and Sorcery fans may find the pace unbearable, as the narrative follows a different rhythm than stories built around extended knots of action (well, there is action here, but it hardly holds itself in focus in the way many fantasy readers would want), but the novel builds its own tension as the couple’s journey towards memory and mortality and the reader’s increasing awareness of the forgotten backstory to this cursed world build chapter after chapter. In many ways it is a gentle and melancholy narrative, but by the end it is also full of terror (well, resigned terror, or horror is maybe the better word here…)–with a glimpse of hope too, maybe, but I’m not sure we can leave the final chapter in the most optimistic of moods. But yeah, spoiler alert–definitely got teary with the final chapter (but hey, I’m a sap).
I don’t want to get more specific because I personally really enjoyed piecing together the world and narrative as I inched along, but feel free to check out Neil Gaiman’s review for more details. Neil doesn’t sound especially enthusiastic about the novel here, but I would still recommend checking it out, as long as you can handle fantasy that doesn’t feel like your usual pulp epic. As someone who has done a bit of work in Cultural Memory studies, I enjoyed the treatment of memory from various angles, and especially the way the “novum” (if we can apply Suvin’s term to fantasy) allowed us to stage a particular ethical conundrum in a very concrete way–something which would have been lost had Ishiguro written this in post-WWII France or elsewhere, as I understand he considered doing. Be sure to check out Neil Gaiman’s interview with Ishiguro, as the two of them get into a very productive and engaging discussion of the issue of genre when it comes to “literary” fiction and fantasy (just keep in mind that it is an informal interview, not a rigorous dissertation). For more background to Ishiguro’s writing of the novel, check out this review. For a more negative review, there is this one. I can sympathize with some this reviewer’s points, but I think I’m just more willing to take it for what it is (and more interested in fantasy of any sort, and with no real horizon of expectations for Kazuo Ishiguro’s work)–I say enjoy the fable-like quality, the awkwardness of doddering old folks as protagonists, the “Monty Python but not funny” pitifulness of the knight who gets caught up in it all (or rather, always has been caught up in it all)–but you know, if you just can’t enjoy those things, that’s fair. I enjoyed it, but don’t know yet whether this will be a “reread until I die” book or not (to be fair, there are a lot of books on that list–and many that aren’t on that list even if they are better than most of those on the list…). And again, I am a particular fan of quirky or unusual entries into the corpus of fantastic literature, so I’m a bit predisposed to find this book engaging.