“Our hero has killed both monsters. One took its mortal wound into the forest, and will not live through the night. The other stood and fought and for its sins the warrior has brought of it what you see on the ground there. The rest of the fiend crawled to the lake to numb its pain and sank there beneath the black waters. The child, Axel, you see there the child?”
It is hard to fault an author for low output, when the reason for the scarcity is the high quality of that same output. While history has produced its share of hyper productive geniuses – Dostoyevsky springs to mind – far more often quality and quantity remain, if not mutually exclusive, then at least somewhat opposed to one another. Japan-born British author Kazuo Ishiguro has written seven novels since 1982, the present one being published just last year. Most of them are great reads while some, such as award winning The Remains of the Day, are nothing short of masterpieces.
The themes of his earlier books have been varied, but it is highly unlikely that anyone would have guessed that Ishiguros latest effort (which took ten years to write) would be a fantasy novel. Nevertheless, The Buried Giant is just that. The story unfolds in a myhtological Britain some time after the death of King Arthur, and quasi-historical figures and references abound. The protagonists, an elderly couple, begin their adventure in a small tunnel village. It is a dreary place, a sort of travesty of Tolkien’s Shire, and the couple have just been bereft of their last candle. We learn that they, as most of the land, are under some strange influence which causes amnesia, and that there is some awful secret which the both of them are trying to remember. This idea resurfaces several times during the course of the book, in various versions.
As in most fantasy novels, the story takes the form of a journey. The couple decides to go visit their son in some far off village, and takes to the road in a confused yet determined state of mind. They then explore the surreal and wartorn world which Ishiguro has crafted from the most ancient myths of Britain, and spiced up with a healthy dose of psychological and literary prowess.
Ishiguro has the rare skill of being able to include certain elements which are less than original, and even a bit overdone, without actually harming the overall picture. In The Remains of the Day the introduction of nazis in the manor inhabited by the stalwart Butler protagonist and his master was almost laughable, and could have hurt the overall experience of the book. Still, it was not fatal in Remains, and neither is the somewhat similar thematic notion here. I have no intent on spoiling the overall story arch, which after all is more important in a work such as this than less “action oriented” genres. Suffice it to say, Ishiguru introduces a central theme alluding to genocide, history and forgiveness that quite frankly is not as interesting as it may sound, compared to the rest of the story. That particular aspect of the book feels somewhat forced, like a mandatory addition of a “theory” section in a student paper, made as an afterthought to the actual research in order to please some radical professor.
That minor flaw aside, The Buried Giant is an almost perfect book. It may seem strange to mock a, if not the, central theme of a book and then praise it in such a way, but only to those who have not read Kazuo Ishiguro. His mastery of language is beyond comparison, and his capacity to evoke tragedy, beauty and a sense of the frailty of the human condition is supreme. This, good people, is a must-read.