Thursday, March 12, 2015

Dark Age - Ishiguro's The Buried Giant offers a wide range of railway tickets, but there is one that I think they should add to their selection: the Ishiguro.

Buy an Ishiguro ticket and your destination will be clearly stated, but somehow you’ll never quite get there. Instead, you’ll have enigmatic conversations with strangers, leave the train halfway through the journey and find yourself in an unknown town that feels disconcertingly familiar. Eventually you’ll realise that you grew up there, but had forgotten until now.

Of course, I’m thinking of The Unconsoled – Kazuo Ishiguro’s maddening but wonderful masterpiece, the fictional equivalent of a waking dream (as one person astutely observed, it is we, the readers, who are the unconsoled). His new novel, The Buried Giant, takes the reader into similar territory, exploring themes of memory and identity, but this time the narrative takes place in a post-Arthurian Britain.

In true Ishiguro fashion, The Buried Giant is not what it initially seems. It is set in the past but isn’t a historical novel. It contains ogres and pixies, plus a cameo appearance from Sir Gawain, but doesn't belong in the fantasy genre either. Indeed, it's much easier to say what it isn't rather than what it is.

The narrative begins with an elderly Briton couple – Axl and Beatrice - who have been afflicted with a malaise that has clouded their memories and sense of identity. At first, I thought I’d spotted an allusion to Alzheimer’s, but in The Buried Giant, young and old alike are affected by the ‘mist’.

Believing that they have been mistreated by their neighbours, Axl and Beatrice decide to journey to their son’s village, but only have the vaguest idea of where he lives or when they last saw him.  

In spite of the ogres, the nearest this novel ever gets to fantasy fiction is that there is a vague, half-hearted quest, an occasional use of swords and a geriatric dragon. However, fans of Robert Jordan and David Eddings would, I suspect, be nonplussed.

What is The Buried Giant about? God only knows. But part of the pleasure of reading Ishiguro is that his writing works like poetry, speaking to the subconscious. We may feel baffled by the narrative, but we can also feel a strong sense of empathy with the characters, who struggle to make sense of what is happening to them.

I was listening to Nielsen's 5th Symphony the other day - a work I've loved for over 30 years. It is a deeply profound piece of music, but I wouldn't even try to tell you what it was about, although on some level I feel I know. It would seem absurd to ask what a symphony was 'about' and yet we feel that it's perfectly reasonably to always ask that question of a novel.

If I had to put my cards on the table, I’d describe it as a story about memory and loss – the pain of forgetting and the fear of the price that must be paid for remembering. The phrase 'magical realism' has been used, but the contrast between the author's deadpan style and the bizarre events of the narrative make this more a 'realistic magic'. Does that make sense?

The medieval saga-like setting and mythological elements are merely incidental to a novel that is, ultimately, a meditation on the human condition and the mythologies we build around ourselves.

However, like an Ishiguro character, I may be completely on the wrong track. I have avoided reading any reviews or author interviews so that my response wouldn’t be clouded by the reactions of others.

Overall, I enjoyed several things about the book. I particularly liked the evocative descriptions of the often desolate landscape. I was also touched by the relationship between Axl and Beartrice, whose strong love contrasted with their physical fragility. But most of all, I admired Ishiguro’s bald, understated prose, which managed to say so little and so much at the same time.

I wasn’t completely convinced by the decision to included short chapters narrated by Sir Gawain and also found some of the characters’ reminiscences a slightly tedious digression, but these are minor quibbles.

The word ‘haunting’ is overused in reviews, but it is apposite for Ishiguro’s elusive, spectral fiction. It is nearly 20 years since I read The Unconsoled, but I remember it more clearly than some books I read last year. I suspect that The Buried Giant will also get under my skin and on sleepless nights, I’ll imagine myself huddled in the ruins of a Roman villa, surrounded by wet ferns and nettles, seeking refuge from a winter storm.


simplesuffolksmallholder said...

It's being read on Radio 4 at 10.45pm - I think it finishes tomorrow. I've been wondering how it ends? but by the sound of it I'll still be wondering even when it has ended!

Steerforth said...

Simplesuffolksmallholder - If you're like me, you'll suddenly realise what it was all about in the middle of the night, only to forget again the following morning.

Annabel said...

It's such a difficult book to write about - there's so much subtext underlying the seemingly simple text. I loved your take on it. I loved reading this book, but am still wondering about it too.

Steerforth said...

Annabel - I'm glad you were as baffled as I was. I almost chickened out of writing a review, as it seemed like a good opportunity to make myself look like an idiot. Perhaps I did.

Lee Parsifal said...

The Unconsoled certainly is like a waking dream but with more structure than any of my dreams. This waking dream (or nightmare) quality reminds me of Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy although it all respects the narrators' dilemmas are polar opposites. Ryder is a visiting celebrity immediately burdened with obligations while Karinthy's narrator is a visitor who doesn't even know the name of the city where is finds himself (by misadventure) or understand a word of the written or spoken language of its inhabitants.

Steerforth said...

Good point Lee. I love Metropole and wouldn't like to choose between which scenario was the most terrifying. I suppose at least they left Budai(?) alone.

Have you see Bergman's 'The Silence'? It elements that remind me of the two books.

Val said...

Life and the state of My brain may delay my introduction to this author possibly for ever ....but I found the post about it was very interesting.
I had not heard of the music you mentioned so I looked it up and found it on youtube and now I am enjoying listening to it so thank you!

Steerforth said...

Val - It's a really extraordinary piece for its time - clearly influenced by the First World War, portraying a conflict between the dark and light aspects of humanity, but that's as much as anyone can really say without diminishing the music.

Glad I was able to introduce you to it. It's Nielsen's 150th aniversary this year.

Wooders said...

Interesting interview here

Steerforth said...

Thanks Wooders - An interesting interview. So I wasn't completely on the wrong track after all - more a compliment to Ishiguro's writing than any insight on my part.

I heard the book discussed on Radio Four's Saturday Review and they didn't seem to get it at all, but I suspect that deadline-meeting skimming was the culprit.