If I wrote in a recent post how little I remembered classical literature, how much MORE have I blanked the classics of Britain – Arthurian legend and, worst of worst, BEOWULF. But more purposely on the whole. In fact – ack! Horror. Burn them.
I think we can all agree that the British golden age was circa 1890s-1940s – Oscar Wilde, camomile lawns, stiff upper lips, gin and tonics, Jeeves & Wooster, Downton Abbey, dropped hemlines, the Blitz Spirit, the English Patient, Howard’s End, winning wars, sweethearts, et al. Still in charge but slightly less acquisitive of swathes of the globe. Gah, we were great. But the Greeks or the Romans we were not. Back in those ancient days, WE were the benighted isle being taken over by people who had sorted out architecture, plumbing and underfloor heating. WE were the bog people. So excuse me if the literature of this chilly era doesn’t fire me up.
Having said that, hearing that Ishiguro – award-winning novelist best known for the dystopian Never Let Me Go – had taken on the days of Britons, Saxons, Merlin etc was certainly intriguing. The Buried Giant, his seventh novel, is a strange old tale of an elderly couple who go on a journey to their son’s village.
What apparently starts semihistorically becomes increasingly fantastical and allegorical. The main conceit of the book is a great forgetting that has fallen over the land. People fail to remember sometimes even the recent past, living in a haze of the present which calms tensions and prevents change or progress. This is introduced gently but increasingly becomes the focus of the book, and many explanations are offered up for it. Fundamentally, it is proferred that it is only this ‘mist’ that makes peaceful life possible by numbing the bitter memories of Britons vs Saxons slaughters in the days of King Arthur. This is the giant that is buried – the union of the warring Briton and Saxon tribes to make a united kingdom, achieved through war and brutality.
It’s an interesting one in theory. In the words of the Guardian review: “A grievance forgotten, Ishiguro implies, is an atrocity forestalled. That the relevance of this is not confined to dark-ages Britain hardly needs to be pointed out, of course.” Really, you have to applaud the earnest Guardian for trying to find contemporary relevance in this. And you feel Ishiguro thinks it’s saying something terribly important – but in fact, it comes across as a bit of a mess. Is this “forgetting” magic? Dragons? Psychological self-protection? A construct of society to enable it to move on from genocide? And do you care when there are dragons and demon dog monsters and pixies – yes, pixies – cropping up all over the shop?
Set against this broader picture, the love of the central couple, Axl and Beatrice, is what binds the book together. But the formality of the language between them, and their faltering rememberances, make it difficult to get a handle on this. We are supposed to get a sense of their closeness from the descriptions of how they go about the journey – staying close to one another, asking for reassurances as to the other’s presence, sheltering the other from the elements. But it’s a bit flat for the modern reader due to the archaic language used.
Their relationship is just one casualty of this highly irritating olde-worlde style. Apparently Ishiguro scrapped a first draft that was even more so – heavens knows what that must have been like. In the words of the Telegraph: “Everyone speaks as if to a child, and their peculiarly overdescriptive, radio-play interactions acquire a kind of Pythonesque absurdity: “’You surprise us, Sir Gawain,’ Axl said. ‘What do you mean by hiding yourself down here?’ ‘I’ve been down here a while and walking before you, friends. Yet with this sword and armour, and my great height which forces me to stumble and go with bowed head, I can’t walk quietly and now you discover me.’” The effect is stilted. Ishiguro is known for cool, allusive prose which cloaks hot passion, but without a successful heart, the whole thing falls flat.
The Telegraph review closes with the damning conclusion that the whole thing has the “general air of badly subtitled cinema” and I know what they’re talking about. To be fair, that is to undervalue the uniqueness of this book. Who would take on sixth century Britain, a quest, a dragon, Sir bloody Gawain (yes, him too), in the pursuit of a serious book about repression, love and memory? Not many. And the experience of The Buried Giant as memorable and strange as the themes that it wrestles with – a very Ishiguro achievement. But ultimately for me, helped by the beautiful gold-embossed, black edged hardback edition I read, the whole thing was like an illuminated manuscript – to be admired, but frozen and static.