‘The Buried Giant’ by Kazuo Ishiguro – Forgetting and Remembering Our Atrocities

‘The Buried Giant’ by Kazuo Ishiguro    (2015)   –  317 pages    Grade: B+

 

c18419c39e1c3e8306b8c6577c3bfeec‘The Buried Giant’ has all the trappings of Old English romantic fantasy: knights in armor, dragons, Sir Gawain who was King Arthur’s nephew, ogres, and pixies.  It takes place sometime after King Arthur supposedly died which would place it early in the 6th century.  The Romans are long gone; many Saxons from Germany have moved in.  There is an uneasy tension between the native Britons and the Saxons, but currently they are at peace.

Kazuo Ishiguro has much bigger fish to fry than a knighthood idyll.  He raises the eternal questions of how two distinct groups of people, in this case the Britons and the Saxons, get along or not.  He may be writing about the post-Roman Britain, but you know he is talking directly to us modern people who have our own problems getting along with the different groups of people we encounter.

I finally found the key to Kazuo Ishiguro, and it is the late great Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago.  Both of these writers use allegory to take us deeper into understanding the human condition.

For example Jose Saramago used ‘Blindness’ as an allegory to depict the state of  people on earth.  In ‘The Buried Giant’ Kazuo Ishiguro uses forgetting and remembering as necessary skills for surviving.  Sometimes we must forget our chaotic pasts in order to continue forward.  What kind of things do we forget?  For soldiers, it may be inhumane acts committed during battles. In times of peace we forget the hatred and atrocities that caused us to murder and destroy in war. In ‘The Buried Giant’, it is the slaughter of innocent children.  For others it may be youthful flings or other indiscretions that would upset a marriage.  Forgetting things may be just as important a survival skill as remembering things.

“I know my god looks uneasily on our deeds of that day.  Yet it’s long past and the bones lie sheltered beneath a pleasant green carpet.  The young know nothing of them.”

Some reviewers have taken Ishiguro to task for not fulfilling the requirements of fantasy fiction.  Those who criticize ‘The Buried Giant’ as not being very good fantasy are totally missing the point. Fantasy fiction is an escapist form of fiction, and Ishiguro’s intention is the exact opposite of escape.  His goal is that we confront our reality more directly.   You might even say that he is subverting the fantasy genre in ‘The Buried Giant’.

Kazuo Ishiguro, in all his novels, has dealt with people repressing memories or suppressing the larger implications as we go about the details of our daily lives.  Thus the butler Stevens in ‘The Remains of the Day’ can run the manor to perfection while he knows his boss is plotting with the Nazis for a German takeover of England.   This same theme of our intentional obliviousness to the overwhelming truth suffuses all of Ishiguro’s novels.

There are many lively and exciting novels that stay on the surface of things.  However, if you want to go deeper and have a more profound experience, read Jose Saramago and Kazuo Ishiguro.

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14 responses to this post.

  1. Interesting. Reviews have been mixed for this but no one can accuse Ishiguro of writing the same novel over and over.

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    • Hi roughghosts,
      There was an article in The Guardian that was a parody of ‘The Buried Giant’ which was pretty funny, but quite unfair. I suppose the main problem writing about the post-Roman Britain is that no one has a clue about what it actually was like since no documentation survives.

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  2. The story itself doesn’t sound like something I would normally read but I love Ishiguro’s writing and I like the idea of him subverting the fantasy genre.

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    • Hi A Little Blog,
      I think that is the important thing, that ‘The Buried Giant’ does deal with Ishiguro themes just as the rest of his novels do. And I agree that if ‘The Buried Giant’ were a fantasy genre novel I would not care for it, but it is much more than that.

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  3. Wonderful review. I am really looking forward to reading the book!

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  4. Hi Stefanie,
    People who like the Kazuo Ishiguro style will not be disappointed in ‘The Buried Giant’

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  5. Great review – much better than mine and more perceptive than most that I’ve read in the press (I was particularly disappointed by the people who discussed the book on Radio Four’s ‘Saturday Review’). I love the way Ishiguro subverts the narrative and frustrates our expectations, but I can imagine how many people who loved ‘Remains of the Day’ were utterly baffled by it’s brilliant successor.

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    • Hi Steerforth,
      No reason to downplay your fine review.
      Unless one is a true Kazuo Ishiguro fan like you and I are, readers might find each of his books so different from each other that they don’t see the underlying similarities between them. To me it seems that each of his books deals with this intentional obliviousness that causes people not to see the overwelming truth of what is going on.
      ‘The Unconsoled’ is the one Ishiguro novel that I have not read, and I saw that in your review that was the main comparison.
      Perhaps in Ishiguro’s case, they should only assign reviewers who are already familiar with his work.

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  6. Ishiguro, in a Guardian podcast, mentioned that TBG shouldn’t be taken as an allegory. He admitted that he doesn’t do allegory because he doesn’t know it. Interestingly, I’ve read a couple of reviews (I’m counting yours) that point out its allegorical aspects. My copy is still in transit and I’d like to find this out for myself.

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    • Hi Angus,
      I looked up the word ‘allegory’ : “a story in which the characters and events are symbols that stand for ideas about human life or for a political or historical situation.” Perhaps ‘The Buried Giant” is not an allegory. It is certainly not historical fiction, because no one knows anything about this time in actual history. It is not fantasy either. Despite what Ishiguro says, it does seem to me that the characters and events portrayed do stand for ideas about human life, in this case the forgetting and remembering of dreadful situations in the past.

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  7. This one really divides people, it’s interesting that way.

    Not sure Ishiguro is dispositive on whether it’s allegory or not. As you say, it’s not historical fiction, and it’s clearly not straight fantasy given the fantastic elements seem more symbolic than intended to have a literal reality within the fiction.

    I do like his early work, but his later stuff never somehow hugely appeals. Did you find this one dragged a bit in the middle as I’ve seen others suggest?

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  8. Hi Max,
    No, ‘The Buried Giant’ didn’t drag for me, because I thought the premise Ishiguro set up about what these Britons forgot in their early wars with the Saxons was quite fascinating. It seemed like a usual Ishiguro theme. The only question I had was that there is no documentation about any early wars between the Britons and Saxons, and he gives the Britons rather a bad rap by assuming there were atrocities.
    While researching this article, I was most impressed with how Ishiguro’s 2005 novel ‘Never Let Me Go’ is now considered a classic. It seemed when it came out it got very mixed reviews like ‘The Buried Giant’, but now it is treated somewhat reverently. Since he isn’t writing the same novel over and over like some writers, it probably takes awhile for reviewers and readers to figure out his novels’ worth.

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  9. Thanks for reviewing 🙂
    Mostly I have enjoyed Ishiguros books, haven’t read this one yet though

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