Unsolicited book review: The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

So we’ve got post-Arthurian Britain here, with the Britons and the Saxons occupying the land in an uneasy truce. We’ve got a collective failure of memory across society—no one, literally, can remember much, if anything, about past years, or even months. We’ve got wandering knights on missions. We’ve got an older couple on a search for their son, who left under unclear circumstances—which is not a surprise, since no one can remember anything. We’ve got faeries, ogres and a dragon, monks of uncertain motives, and swordfights. We’ve got really, really big questions. And we’ve also got, sadly, a somewhat tedious and boring novel.

I was, and remain, a huge fan of Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro’s wonderfully understated, and very powerful, novel about a dystopian future where the central characters are bred as organ providers for humans. It was the understatement that made the book so powerful. Ishiguro isn’t much of a stylist, really, and he writes in a very flat prose style, which in NLMG served to reinforce the essential horror of the situation the principal characters found themselves in. But it served another purpose, which was to let Ishiguro spend time developing the characters of the novel at leisure. The strength of the novel came from these genuinely interesting and human characters that weren’t human at all, but rather organic creations—which made the story so heartbreaking.

So I’ve been trying to figure out why reading The Buried Giant was such a chore. And I think the main reason was that instead of developing the characters into genuinely credible literary characters, as he did in NLMG, Ishiguro took the easy way out—we get stereotypes. The old, tired knight. The young knight on a mission. The orphan boy. The old couple not quite sure if they’re still in love. You get the picture. And we never really get much more than that. As a result, I found myself completely indifferent to the fates of the characters. The most sympathetic of the characters, Axl and Beatrice, the elderly couple, still manage to talk to each other like computer programs.

Which is the other main problem–the incredibly tedious dialog that takes place in the book. We get conversations that no one could actually believe are even passable literary conversations in a novel—they’re just too stilted. (I fully expected sentences from the dialogs I was required to learn in Vietnamese language school in the Army to pop up at any minute—“Come, let’s go visit the neighboring village being burned by incendiary bombs” remains lodged in my brain forever.) People just don’t talk the way Ishiguro has his characters talk, even if it is post-Arthurain Britain. And it’s noticeable, and distracting.

All of which is too bad, because Ishiguro has some large questions that he wants to concern us with—what do societies choose to remember and to forget? This concern was originally prompted by 9/11, and Ishiguro eventually found the vehicle for it, he thinks, is the world suggested by Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. I can buy this, in theory. Ishiguro gave an extended interview with Lorien Kite of The Financial Times, in which he discusses what he went through is putting the novel together, including what he was trying to do. This was helpful, because throughout my reading that’s exactly what I kept asking myself—what is he trying to do here?

The problem, for me at least, is that it doesn’t come off. So when I finally finished, I immediately picked up the new Paul McAuley, Something Coming Through—dystopian London, wormholes, nuclear terrorism, aliens of uncertain intent, unpredictable alien artifacts, murders and police procedural stuff on another planet, the works, all told in McAuley’s usual page-turning style. What a relief.

Categories: Arts/Literature, ArtSunday

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  1. Although I enjoyed the book, I would struggle to disagree with the points about the lethargic pace and weight of the dialogue. It’s something that didn’t bother me particularly – I think I felt more swaddled in the banality of various passages, if that makes any sense, but I can definitely understand how it caused a lot of readers problems.

    My review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro