Saturday, 7 October 2017

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro  {Reviewed by THOMAS}
In many ways, this ought to have been an awful book but instead it is the opposite: a historical fantasy written against the conventions of historical fantasy. In an extended lull in the eighth-century wars between the Britons and the colonising Saxons, an elderly Briton couple set out to join their son, who long ago left for the next village. The land is covered with a ‘mist of forgetting’, which erases personal and collective history and makes sustained intentional action nearly impossible. They fall in with a Saxon warrior (who has come to kill the dragon whose enchanted breath is the mist of forgetting (oops: spoiler)) and a Saxon boy who has sustained a strange bite, and, at various times, they encounter Sir Gawain, the late King Arthur’s nephew, now elderly, cantankerous and occasionally prone to dischivalry and mental slippage. I don’t want to write too much about what happens, partly because it is important that the reader accompanies the couple in their slow struggle towards narrative memory, and partly because Ishiguro takes great pains to keep the reader from becoming absorbed in ‘the action’. Especially towards the beginning, distance is maintained by an unidentified intrusive narrator saying things like “there would have been elms and willows near the water”, and, throughout, the tropes and clichés of both historical and fantasy fiction are rigorously deflated, and what could have been ‘dramatic’ bits are treated in a deliberately cursory manner compared with the attention given to the glimmers of temporal consciousness shielded by each of the characters. In fact, as well as being an extended meditation on the nature and ambivalent power of memory, the book can also be read as an analogue of the writing of fiction: characters are slowly defined by personal and collective histories, both as narrative is wound about them out of the mists of undefined potential (the setting of this novel in a time where the line between mythology and history is undrawn (at least psychologically) is appropriate) and as their back-stories are induced by slowly moving towards recognition of what it is in their past that propels their actions. For Ishiguro, memory, as well as making identity and sustained intention possible, is the mechanism by which personal and collective trauma forces itself upon the present and upon which further harm is predicated (“vengeance relished in advance by those not able to take it in its proper place”). Ishiguro, never one to write the same book twice, has written an unusual, thoughtful and, ultimately, involving book.

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