Kazuo Ishiguro has a new book, The Buried Giant. And it is the Ishiguro-est book yet. The Ishiguro-est book ever. For good and ill, it's hard to imagine a book more Ishiguro-y than this one.
Of course, that’s a tricky thing to say about a book. What makes a book Ishiguresque? His main theme is memory—the ways in we live through and in our memories, the ways our memories shift and blur, the ways in which we live with knowledge we can’t live with. How identity is a function of memories and how memory is a function of identities. The specific context changes from book to book—well, and in some of the books it’s quite an unspecific context—but the themes are his themes.
The critics (who were not kind to this book, on the whole) make a big deal of how Mr. Ishiguro crosses up the expectation of his readers. Having become famous for a historical novel, he wrote a science fiction novel last time, and this one is a fantasy novel. How can readers keep up with that? Oh, no! Actually, the last book was a book of shorter prose pieces, but the reviewers don't seem to mention that one for some reason. Anyway, one of the advantages of being a genre reader, for the most part, is not being perplexed by an author making a choice to work in one genre to tell a particular story, and a different genre for another. Or maybe it's that I'm not terribly confused by William Shakespeare having written both comedies and tragedies. I want to be sympathetic and all, but are mainstream ‘literary' critics really that obtuse about genre? The books are far more alike than different, taking into account themes, tone, attitude and sensibility. Mr. Ishiguro is, in all of these (and the mystery one) writing as much about genre than in genre, but then, a lot of genre books write about genre.
Anyway, I don't mean to whinge about how obtuse critics can be. I should talk about the book. Which is… well, Ishiguro-y. Disorienting, powerful, sad. Beautiful. Difficult. Hard to pin down.
So. Spoilers, eh? And I believe that spoilers do spoil Ishiguro novels, because part of the whole thing is clearing away the lies and obfuscations the characters try to believe about themselves. So. Spoilers, eh?
Start with this: Arthur and his Britons come to an uneasy truce with the Saxons, a short generation before the novel begins. A treaty, negotiated by a young knight, functions as a sort of fifth-century Geneva Convention, promising that whatever may come in the struggle, at least they will all stop using rape and murder of civilians as a tool of war. However… well, things happen, don't they. And by things I mean unspeakable atrocities perpetrated against the Saxons, encouraged by Arthur himself, regrettably necessary, don't you know, to ensure that the perfidious counter-insurgence will never counterinsurge. In the wake of the great battle (the Battle of Badon, maybe?) when the Britons gain dominance, Arthur sends Merlin (protected by five knights, including Sir Gawain) to make a mighty enchantment: the breath of a dragon will produce a mist that clouds everyone's memories. The bloodlust for revenge will be swallowed in the fog of amnesia.
I don't see how anything can possibly go wrong.
The novel's story itself is, more or less, the uncovering of that sequence of events, ending with a Saxon warrior slaying the dragon and ending the spell. Before that can happen, there are ogres to be fought, of course, and towers to be jumped out of, hags to be humored, pixies to be driven off, old scores to unsettle, old bones to trample, old doors to unlock. Well, doors. In my day, we were lucky to have a frame of branches leaning against an underground opening, but they were doors to us! That was back before they took away our candle. Dark it is, now, without a bit of candle in the night, and no chance for the sun, as it rises, to penetrate this mist. Wait, what was I talking about? Oh, the dragon, I forgot.
It's a frustrating book, in that way, with Mr. Ishiguro and his characters throwing any small matter in the path of the putative quest. Conversations change subjects from line to line. A character may seem to drop a goal entirely, or to act contrary to it, or deny an obvious fact. It's unsettling, and difficult, and frustrating, and it reeks of truth.
In the middle of the book, all of the main characters are in a friary built in an old fort. The warrior, as he enters, observes the old defenses, no longer used but built in to the fabric of the place. The monks are Christians who observe a barbaric pagan ritual. There are factions among the brothers, deep divisions we aren't privy to. Secrets are buried there, both too deep and not deep enough. The local Saxon lord sends his men in to kill the warrior, who uses the forgotten defenses to lure them to their deaths; other characters escape through a crypt. The past is there, whether you talk about it or not; the past kills people; the past saves people's lives. The past isn't what you want it to be.
Near the end of the book, when people's memories are starting to return, I began to fear that everything would be wrapped up too neatly. The old woman's missing son would turn out to be the young man with the missing mother; everybody's past would match up and all the holes would be filled in. That is not the sort of thing that happens in Ishiguro books, though—the dragon is destroyed, but that doesn't answer everybody's questions. We're left, at the end, not really knowing anything. Frustrating and sad, but shot through with beauty, not unlike life, really.
I keep thinking about the monastery built on the old fort. In a way, it's the book's manifestation of beating swords into plowshares, innit? Take a place of violence and repurpose it to the sacred. And yet, it remains (this particular spot, in this book, for Mr. Ishiguro's purposes) a place of violence. It's built into the stones—once the physical attributes are there, they can be used, which means they will be used. But then, it's not as simple as fort=war; monastery=peace in the first place—the fort is designed as a defensive place, an island of safety amid violence, and there is violence submerged among the monks. Nothing is simple, in Kazuo Ishiguro's books; nothing is separate, nothing is resolvable or complete.
That's what makes the book Ishiguro-ish. Not the setting or genre. Those are just ways of telling ourselves stories about ourselves, as is history, and memory, and life. An Ishiguro book is about our inability to live without those stories, and our inability to live with them, and that's the buried giant.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,