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July 2015
The Buried Giant - Kazuo Ishiguro - Faber & Faber, 2015

* * *
Despite not being a great fan of his previous work, I put Ishiguro's latest on my wishlist because I was intrigued by its premise. As someone who profoundly believes that memory is the key to being human, a novel about a land afflicted by a mist of forgetfulness was an intriguing proposition. I was somewhat concerned about its reported use of fantastic elements, given Ishiguro's ineptitude in providing the necessary historical and sociological underpinnings for the SF world of Never Let Me Go, but fantasy is in many respects a tougher genre to get wrong; after all, implausible or inconsistent plotting can always be waved away with a magical wand, and hackneyed tropes such as dragons, elves or vampires can be justified by giving them new allegorical meanings. Alas, despite its exploration of an interesting moral dilemma, The Buried Giant does not really work as a novel. And the reasons why are not dissimilar to those that flaw Never Let Me Go
.

The chief viewpoint characters are, unusually, an elderly married Briton couple called Axl and Beatrice, who live in a cave-village. Like everyone else, they are aware that the mist has robbed them of their memories, but they do not care particularly. Then one day, Beatrice recalls that they have a son who lives in a distant village and demands that they travel there. En route they meet the Saxon warrior hero Wistan, rescue a boy called Edwin whom villagers believe is cursed, encounter an old knight called Sir Gawain, and face various perils including vicious pixies and sinister monks. But what fate awaits them at the end of their journey?

The fundamental problem is that Axl and Beatrice just aren't very interesting or sympathetic. The mist has sapped their characters of their richness, leaving an old couple who speak in cliches and whose motivations, prompted as they are by random and convenient flashes of memory, don't make much sense to the reader. What’s frustrating is that there are suggestions of an intriguing backstory that the mist obscures - Axl in particular is hinted as having an interesting past, but we never learn what it is. Even the introduction of Sir Gawain, which should evoke a whole rich Arthurian backstory, doesn't help, because, of course, no one recalls what King Arthur did. In fact, if anything Gawain is more Don Quixote than noble knight, an old man dressed in battered armour who barely remembers what he is doing, let alone his past.

A flat and mannered telling that all too often disappears into bathos doesn't help either. There is a lot of dialog that is too artificial to flow naturally but not sufficiently stylish to be read as fantasy-speak. Axl refers to Beatrice as "Princess" almost every other sentence, which rapidly becomes extremely annoying.

A dragon called Querig is a significant plot device, and its allegorical use is the most successful part of the novel, as Ishiguro explores the idea that amnesia might have its uses and that maybe the mist is not the horrible curse that it appears to be. But it is not sufficient in itself to justify the novel's longeurs and the sheer tedium of the characters.

To be fair, Ishiguro is attempting something difficult - writing about memory loss and its effects on character from the point of view of the afflicted people - but bolting on fantasy motifs as vague and passive allegories is not the way to do it. Ishiguro has fundamentally misunderstood the nature of fantasy writing, as Ursula Le Guin has pointed out in her critical remarks (see also her nuanced apology, which, as she correctly predicted, has not been picked up by the literary press). Once again, Ishiguro does not appear to have done his research before venturing into genre; if he had, he would have come across Gene Wolfe's similar take on memory in his Soldier in the Mist sequence, which is a far more interesting and moving read than The Buried Giant turned out to be. A pity, because Ishiguro would almost certainly have made a better job of developing his undeniably interesting premise if he had.

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