Kazuo Ishiguro is in Denver today! This marks his first visit to the Mile High City in twenty years, and we couldn’t be more excited. All of us read his latest novel, The Buried Giant, and we have plenty to say about it. Today, Unbound Writers Lisa Mahoney, Theodore McCombs, CS Peterson, and Mark Springer debate whether the novel is, you know, good.
The Buried Giant follows an elderly Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice, as they travel through a vaguely Arthurian landscape of ogres, pixies, and a mist that makes everyone forget—which, given the generations of bloodshed between Britons and Saxons, may not be such a bad thing ...
Mark Springer: Let’s start by talking about memory, because despite the ogres and the dragon and the Arthurian lore, that’s what this book is ultimately about—memory and forgetting, and how people deal with the bad things that have happened in the past, whether as individuals or collectively as a society. Forgetfulness is the dramatic signature of the novel, and Ishiguro evokes it so powerfully that we all felt it became part of experience of reading the book.
CS Peterson: The book is not a light read. You have to work at it. Dialogue repeats, events repeat through different perspectives, and sometimes it was hard to distinguish what had come before and what after.
Lisa Mahoney: It’s an in-your-face challenge to open a story in which even the protagonists don’t remember their own motivations. Will the readers stick with the narrative until they’ve rediscovered them?
Theodore McCombs: Ishiguro is very good at defamiliarizing, making everything just a little bit “off.” The effect is to have the reader constantly asking, What am I missing here? What am I not being told? And as we travel through the book we understand, yes, something is very off, and slowly we discover what it is.
MS: And what we discover changes the way we understand everything that came before. I found myself going back to check and recheck the details of the things characters had said in the past against what they were saying later. Their confusion became my confusion. It was unsettling, and at times frustrating. I went along with it because Ishiguro has earned my trust as a reader, and because I was motivated to figure out the mystery of the forgotten past, but that tension kept me from liking the book.
CSP: In Neil Gaiman’s review, he described having a feeling of distrust of the text and he said he could like it but he couldn’t love it because he was convinced “that there was an allegory waiting like an ogre in the mist”—an allegory of an elderly couple wandering toward death, and the crossing to the island is death, and no matter how much they love each other they can’t cross together. But then there are all these other pieces of the story that don’t resolve in that allegory, and so you start to wonder if you’re missing the rest of it, but the more I think about it, the less I think it’s a one-to-one kind of allegorical story.
TM: Exactly. The allegory doesn’t reduce to a clear referent, and for the reader, that starts to resemble, say, the feeling of trying to remember something you know is important, which you can’t quite grasp ... just like Axl in the novel.
So, Never Let Me Go speaks to the ways in which we all exploit young people and put them into the machine of the world economy and harvest their productivity, but it’s also literally a story about children that are literally going to get their organs ripped out of them and die. The “allegory” has its own integrity as a story, and I think the same is true about the magic island in The Buried Giant. Of course it’s an allegory of death, and Ishiguro isn’t worried his readers will miss the reference to Charon but at the same time, the magical island and the boat have their own importance to Axl and Beatrice, literally.
CSP: And to every other couple that has faced this choice before them in the book.
MS: Among other things, the book has been criticized for it’s stylized, archaic-sounding dialogue.
TM: For modern readers, the natural reaction to watching people talking like this is, Why are you being so weird? What’s your deal? That’s part of the tension Ishiguro deliberately creates between the text and the reader. Now, maybe some people don’t want to go through a book interrogating everything on the page, but I also think it’s fair for Ishiguro to ask that from his readers–it’s his seventh novel, we’ve had due warning.
LM: But even for an established writer, I’m wondering if stylized, archaic speech is the best way to develop the ideas of the novel if it turns off so many readers. The dialogue shouldn’t feel so labored that it is memorably painful, should it?
MS: Lisa, can you give an example?
LM: Sure. Here is Edwin, a 12-year-old boy, talking to Wistan, the Saxon warrior who rescued him early in the book:
LM: All the characters in the book talk like this. They repeatedly address each other by their positions or their names, as if two people talking wouldn’t know who’s being addressed. No one does this in real life. The two elderly protagonists, Axl and Beatrice, call each other “Axl” or “princess” in nearly every block of speech. In fact, since I have an electronic version of the book, I ran a test: how many times does Axl call his wife “princess” in the first sixty (out of a total 317) pages? Answer: 74 times. Ouch.
MS: When he first started writing the novel ten years ago, Ishiguro worried about the dialogue sounding stilted or silly. He gave the first 50 pages to his wife and she told him to start from scratch. According to Ishiguro, she said, “None of this can be seen by anybody” and called the dialogue “laughable.”
Eventually, he did what she suggested—he started over from scratch. So presumably, the dialogue we see on the page now is less stylized than it was in the original draft. But still, it never lets the reader feel comfortable with the characters. That’s effective as far as creating tension with the reader, but I don’t think it makes for effective dialogue within the context of a story. There were points where I just wanted them to stop talking so the story could move forward.
LM: The best dialogue in fiction is goal-driven interplay between characters, not speechmaking laboring under adjectives and literary word choices. Interestingly, Ishiguro does use a more natural style of dialogue in the book, but only once, in the scene in which Edwin remembers his encounter with a girl a few years older than himself. The girl is tied up on a riverbank struggling to free herself when he stumbles upon her. Edwin explains to the girl why he’s not working in the fields:
“I’m allowed because I finished three corners by myself already today.” Then he added, “My real mother’s not in the village any more.”
“Where’s she gone?”
“I don’t know. She was taken. I live with my aunt now.”
“When I was a child like you,” she said, “I lived in a village. Now I travel.”
LM: Notice that the teens don’t address each other by designations like “young lad” or “traveler.” They don’t use clunky dialogue to explain what just happened, as characters do in many parts of the novel. Strangely, this is the same Edwin who above addressed Wistan the warrior with such long, formal sentences and grand words (for a twelve-year-old). If we didn’t already know this was the same character, we could never guess by his different styles of speech.
CSP: Why do you think Ishiguro changes the dialogue style here?
LM: I think it’s clear Ishiguro is using the stylized dialogue as a tool, as Ted suggested. In the first example, Edwin adopts stiff speech when trying to get back into the good graces of Wistan, who wants Edwin to develop a vengeful hatred for Britons. The stylized dialogue conveys a painfully backward thought process. The scene between Edwin and the girl sounds more natural because neither one is trying to conform to the adult way of thinking and speaking.
I interpreted this as Ishiguro coming down firmly on the side of youth who would ignore the atrocities of the past despite the “buried giant” surrounding them. Beatrice speculates about why children forget even more of the past than the elders. I think Ishiguro is suggesting that it is the adults who twist the young into carrying on blood feuds generation after generation, whereas, if left alone, the kids would forget it and live—and speak—peacefully and naturally.
MS: Revenge and hatred are strongly portrayed as being the result of choices people make, rather than the inevitable state of human affairs. Or maybe they are inevitable, because there are always people who have something to gain from keeping old grievances alive.
CSP: Another thing about the dialogue—it got me thinking of Beowulf. When Wistan saves Edwin from the ogres, the warrior cuts off the arm of one of the monsters and the wounded creature dives into the lake to die. That’s a direct allusion to Beowulf. And the dialogue in Beowulf is as archaic as it gets.
MS: So we should all be thankful Ishiguro didn’t write The Buried Giant in Old English!
CSP: Right. But I think of Tolkien, and how The Lord of the Rings attempted to recreate an Anglo-Saxon mythology that had been wiped out by the Norman conquest. He lifted scenes from Beowulf wholesale because he felt the ancient culture had been neglected to the point of destruction. And I think Ishiguro is commenting on that.
TM: Commenting through the stylized dialogue specifically, or through the process of unearthing the same symbol set (or whatever) as Tolkien?
CSP: I think in unearthing the same symbol set and in unearthing the history of violence. At the end of the book, the Saxons are poised to wipe out the Britons in retribution for atrocities the Britons committed against them in the past, and the reader knows that 400 years later the Saxons will be culturally wiped out by the Normans. It’s all part of this revenge cycle of wholesale cultural annihilation that never resolves and never ends.
LM: You could look at it that way, or say, setting this story in England offers hope because the country did eventually emerge from the cycle of revenge to become a unified people. You have to think Ishiguro considered both readings in choosing the setting.
TM: So, why fantasy? Why not write a historical novel about the Saxons and the Britons?
CSP: I think he answered that in the New York Times feature. He could have set it in the Balkans, but then people would have said the story was just about the Balkans, or he could have set it in the Middle East but people would have said it was just about the Middle East. But he was was aiming for a more universal about the human condition, and that’s what good, thoughtful fantasy allows you to do. It allows you to comment not about a specific instance of human behavior or history, but to step back and look at the whole of the human experience in a neutral setting.
TM: Do you think he succeeded?
CSP: Well he caused me to think deeply about it. So yes, at least in my experience of the book, I think he succeeded. What do you think?
TM: I do. And not just as a successful literary-fantasy hybrid, but I think it’s also successful as a fantasy novel. I actually liked the plot of the quest to slay the dragon. I thought it was a legit, well-executed fantasy plot.
MS: I agree that the fantasy elements work to universalize the story, in much the same way that the understated sci-fi/dystopian elements of Never Let Me Go did for that story. From a fantasy perspective, all the genre elements are there—monsters and mythical creatures, magic, warriors, a quest. But it’s not a rip-roaring tale, and I think that’s deliberate. Ishiguro subverts a lot of the superficial genre expectations by slowing the pace and keeping most of the traditional fantasy action offstage. When there is action, as in the two sword fights and the subterranean encounter with the demon-dog, the scenes unfold with a terse realism.
CSP: The reader has to work to parse out what really happens in these scenes, which are over so quickly. The fights are realistic in their brevity. Real sword fights don’t last very long, just like real bullets don’t make a body fly backwards and explode (ahem, Sherlock Series 3).
TM: Even the dragon-slaying itself is very muted and anticlimactic.
MS: Because slaying the dragon isn’t really what the book is about. It’s about the consequences of all the memories—good and bad, individual and collective—that come back to everyone after the dragon is dead. The dragon is Wistan’s quest. Axl and Beatrice’s quest is to find the memories they hope will enable them to cross to the magical island without being separated from each other.
Warning: Here there be spoilers!
TM: That brings us to the final scene. Do we think the boatman will come back for Axl and reunite him with Beatrice on the magical island? Or was it all a trick?
MS: I’m conflicted about this. The boatman doesn’t seem trustworthy to me. He’s evasive and he seems to be manipulating them.
CSP: It seems like he cares about them a little bit, because he takes away the rain-soaked blankets and gives Beatrice something dry to keep her warm during the crossing. But he doesn’t feel he can tell them the truth of what’s going to happen—that they will have to cross separately, no matter what. I don’t believe him when he says Axl and Beatrice are going to be able to walk arm in arm on the island. Or see their son.
TM: I say the boatman is being perfectly honest and Axl and Beatrice are reunited on the island and they live happily ever after, goddammit.
CSP: Beatrice asks him directly, and pushes for a direct answer. He finally says “there’s no question but that you’ll be permitted to dwell on the island together. Be assured on that point.” But I’m not assured.
LM: Me neither. Ted, you’re so optimistic! I think that Axl is so disappointed that Beatrice is willing to get into a boat without him after the warnings they heard at the ruined Roman villa, and after his heroic rescue of her from the pixies, that Axl lets her go (die) and walks away from the shore to live the rest of his allotted time alone.
MS: I also don’t think the boatman is being honest. He’s already admitted to the reader that he is manipulating Beatrice: “An evasive answer, and one to give her boldness.” He’s leading them to the decision that Beatrice should cross now. I think that’s his duty. It’s Beatrice’s time to cross to the island, and it’s his job to get her there. He knows they want to cross together, and he makes it seem like they’ll be able to, but the whole time he knows he can only take one person at a time. The boatmen only ever take one person at a time.
TM: Robin Black likes to say the ending of a story isn’t a wrapping-up, but a handing-off. After the last page, it’s no longer the author’s story, now it’s in the reader’s hands to decide what happens next. So, I’m exercising my option. *Shakes fist*
MS: How much agency do you think we ultimately have as readers, though? The book is very deliberately and thoughtfully constructed to this end. There’s room for interpretation, but the next page isn’t really a blank page. It follows after everything that came before.
TM: Yes, in all seriousness, it is a deliberately constructed ending, which Ishiguro has very carefully walked us toward. Axl and Beatrice’s relationship is a parallel to the relationship between the Saxons and the Britons, and the questions Ishiguro puts to us about the nature of memory and forgetting apply to both relationships: Can they heal, will they reconcile? Did the long years of forgetting those wrongs enable them to heal?
MS: That’s the question Axl asks Beatrice: “Could it be our love would never have grown so strong down the years had the mist not robbed us the way it did? Perhaps it allowed old wounds to heal.” From that perspective, the crossing itself doesn’t matter. What matters is whether or not Axl and Beatrice will be reunited on the island. That will be the final proof of forgiveness.
TM: And that’s deliberately left as a question, just as the broader Saxon-Briton issue is. We have Wistan preaching undying hatred of Britons, yet Edwin the young Saxon is thinking, But those old people are so nice … We have a ray of hope that Wistan might turn out to be wrong.
CSP: And then there’s the final ray of hope with Axl when he’s talking with the boatman:
CSP: Axl’s wound only healed when he forgot it long enough that it didn’t matter anymore. That was the moment at the beginning of the book when he came to a “momentous decision—one that had been put off far too long” about “some unnamed loss.” In the inarticulate depths of his heart the wound had finally healed. He had forgiven his son and his need to be against the journey was gone.
TM: Right. So, I still hold by my answer: happily ever goddamn after.
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.
Alexander Alter, “For Kazuo Ishiguro, ‘The Buried Giant’ Is a Departure,” New York Times, Feb. 19, 2015.
Neil Gaiman, “Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant’,” New York Times, Feb. 25, 2015.