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The Buried Giant
a Book Review of the novel by Kazuro Ishiguro
I enjoyed The Buried Giant by Kazuro Ishiguro, but I think I would need to be an actual literary critic to be able to give this book a just review. The Buried Giant is reminiscent of both a fairy tale and a story from Greek mythology. This means that there are many themes, tropes, and metaphors that one could easily write a mediocre five-paragraph essay on.
The author Kazuro Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2017. The Nobel Prize in literature is given to writers who "in the field of literature, produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction.” (I’m honestly not sure what that means except that people think he’s an impressive writer.) Ishiguro is known for experimentation, he changes topic and style between his novels. In the Buried Giant, Ishiguro uses allegory to discuss ideas about death, forgiveness, and memories.
In a world covered by mist, an elderly couple, Beatrice and Axl, live in a village where they are ostracized. The mist (an obvious symbol) literally occludes the thoughts of the characters, not allowing them to retain memories for longer than a couple of hours. Unlike their peers, Axl and Beatrice can remember select memories from the past. They think they have a son who lives nearby and they are wracked by an unnamed guilt concerning their son. Axl and Beatrice can’t remember why their son left, but they believe it may be a result of something they have done. Beatrice, overwhelmed by desire to see her son, instigates the couples exodus from the safety of their village and they begin a journey to find their son.
As they travel, Axl and Beatrice discover that the mist is caused by the dragon Querig, whom an elderly knight, Sir Gawain, was tasked to kill at the request of King Arthur. It has been several decades since King Arthur’s death and Sir Gawain is now an old man who still has not defeated the dragon. In addition, to the elderly knight, Axl and Beatrice meet a fighter and a boy. All three are from different generations and all are in search of the dragon Querig, to either protect or kill her. The conflict over the life or death of the dragon is the central tension in the novel. It is a fight to oppress or free the memories of the people.
Beatrice has an illness and the couple meet “death” on the road, represented metaphorically as a river and physically as a grim reaper. As they travel, Beatrice searches for a cure but Axl continually forgets Beatrice is sick indicating that Axl may be selectively choosing the memories he keeps, raising the question of whether all memories are worth having: “What good’s a memory’s returning from the mist if it’s only to push away another?” (Pg 258)
The story’s narrator switches between Axl, Beatrice, Sir Gawain, and the boy. Every character has forgotten large parts of their past; they all prove to be unreliable narrators. This makes the book confusing; for example, the main characters even forget each other. Thus, much of the story is not for character development, but is instead to drive the plot forward and to convey meaning to the reader. The style of the novel is like that of a long fairy tale, although it is officially shelved under fantasy. Since, it reads as a fairy tale, it feels long for that style, creating a lack of urgency. The book is whimsical, but the general somnolence of the characters makes the book lack impact.
You may recognize the name “Sir Gawain” from the Arthurian legends and, specifically, from the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, which was recently made into an overly dramatic movie (but that’s another story). The unnamed author of the poem, also called the “Gawain poet” or the “Pearl poet”, is thought to have also written the poems “Pearl”, “Cleanness”, and “Patience”. The moral of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is to always tell the truth; in “Pearl” a man crosses a river into the Heavenly City to seek a maiden, his “pearl”; and “Patience” and “Cleanness” contain discussions of virtue and purity. The themes and plot of The Buried Giant are a modern mash-up of these poems.
The buried giant is not a physical being, but a metaphor representing the danger of memories and how modern cultures are based on fractured histories. “The giant, once well buried, now stirs” (Pg. 297). The Buried Giant reads like a book I would have read in high school, which I think made me judgmental. It was enjoyable to read, and had a lyrical style, but it was trying too hard to have “meaning” and to be “literary.” The author was overcompensating by using obvious symbolism like mist and dragons. While Ishiguro’s prose was beautiful, a lot of the story’s power was lost in its heavy-handedness.
Thus, hence, therefore and ergo, I have proved my thesis by delivering a mediocre 5-ish paragraph essay.
The Don’t Call Me Ishmael Official Book Rating, Sponsored by the Underwater Gentle Giant Society (UGGS):
3.5/5 Whales. Enjoyable.