Fantasy, along with its sister, Science Fiction, is an oft-derided genre. Critics and literary award committees turn up their noses; ‘high-brow’ readers won’t be seen dead holding a copy.
A writer that manages to bridge this chasm is the Japanese/British, Booker Prize-winning author, Kazuo Ishiguro. His novels are set against Sci-Fi or fantastical backdrops, but these just form the milieu against which he weaves stories that are profoundly moving and that often ask deeply philosophical questions, in beautiful prose.
Ishiguro’s first novel in a decade, The Buried Giant, is a ‘literary’ version of J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s inspired by Tolkien’s 1953 essay on the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which King Arthur’s nephew accepts a battle challenge by a mysterious knight. The Buried Giant is set in Britain somewhere between the Dark and Middle Ages. The Romans have left, most of the roads they built, broken or overgrown. Arthur is gone, and the remnants of his Round Table are scattered across the land. Though the late King had managed to stop the civil wars that ravaged Britain, a gloomy tension is rising; “icy fogs” hang over rivers and marshes, and ogres are every day hazards.
Amid this an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, decide to set out from their tiny village to find their son. They can scarcely remember him as a collective memory loss, or “mist”, has fallen across the land. Few can remember even the recent past. But something nags at the edge of Axl’s mind, snippets, small moments of times gone by. Perhaps their son left because of a quarrel, but it’s impossible to say. They know they love each other, but doubts creep in, as fragments of their memories push through the fog.
Perhaps, it’s God himself that’s making them forget, Beatrice suggests to Axl:
“‘It was just a thought. That perhaps God is angry about something we’ve done. Or maybe he’s not angry, but ashamed.’ ‘A curious thought, princess. But if it’s as you say, why doesn’t he punish us? Why make us forget like fools even things that happened the hour before?’ ‘Perhaps God’s so deeply ashamed of us, of something we did, that he’s wishing himself to forget. And… when God won’t remember, it’s no wonder we’re unable to do so.’”
Along Axl and Beatrice’s journey, they meet several characters, including Sir Gawain himself, and come across many hazards, like the dragon, which lies at the centre of the story. As they travel, they slowly discover the truth. About the mist. About the distrust, suspicion, and violence that is stealing almost unnoticed into once-peaceful communities. About themselves.
The plot is unhurried and subtle. A dragon and a famed knight are integral to the tale but the message is about the fear and pain of losing that which we hold dear: memories of loved ones. But amid this poetry, the descriptions of sword fights and magic seem inane and extraneous. It detracts from, rather than furthers the story.
I’m a little divided on this book and I’m not the only one. The New Yorker was scathing, calling it “a slog” while The Guardian loved it, saying it’s “worthy of a place among the greats”. Ishiguro’s writing feels stilted at times, but at least it’s not complicated or wordy. If the novel was any longer I may have found it rather hard work. The Buried Giant is not unmemorable, but didn’t leave me with the same lasting impression as the devastating and achingly beautiful, Never Let Me Go. The Buried Giant a dwarf next to the colossus of some of this author’s previous works.
Rating: 3 out of 5
The Buried Giant is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers SA.
Available for R163 at Takelot.com.