Some Things Are Better Left Unwritten: “The Buried Giant”

Despite the appearance of an actual buried giant, the title refers to the forced metaphor hanging over the entire book, which is that of the anger and resentment between Saxons and Britons, a blood feud that only Merlin’s magic was able to erase, and only then by enchanting a dragon’s breath so as to sap the England citizenry of their memories. In the words of Peggy Lee, then, I’m left wondering “Is that all there is?” after plodding through Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Ishiguro’s language is (intentionally) dull, reflecting the miasmatic mist, and the few action scenes between knights and ogres or demons are recounted secondhand or as blink-and-you’ll-miss it samurai-like exchanges. What’s left, then, is a series of repetitious conversations between an elderly couple and a warrior and his young, dragon-bitten ward. (There are also two “reveries” given over to a knight, Gawain.) It’s not much fun to read, and there’s not much reason for it–as a novella or, better yet, as a short story, the mystery might have justified the cadence: instead, the book makes its point in the first few pages, and spends the next several hundred wearing its audience down. 

Worse, there’s no real payoff. Several times, the characters wonder if perhaps they’re better off not being able to remember things, but we’ll never know, as the novel doesn’t show the aftereffects of the fog clearing. Moreover, the plot itself is inconsistent: several characters carry grudges and violent missions that persist through Merlin’s magic, so it’s not as if the forgetfulness was even all that effective at eroding the distrust between nations. If anything, both the innocent child and elderly couple are taught to hold onto a certain level of hatred, despite the mist–for the child to become an efficient warrior, he must forget the kindness of this elderly couple, and for the elderly couple to have a “happy” ending, they must forget the warnings they’ve long received about boatmen (which I can see only as another type of symbolism: death coming to ferry one, and eventually, the other–and not necessarily to the same afterlife). The consistency of Ishiguro’s points are as thin as the mist, and while there’s no doubt that the author means for the readers to wander, as lost as the characters, the real question is why any reader would want to subject themselves to such a dull experience.

I submit, then, that any author who wants to make the reader work this hard must actually teach them something at the end of that slog. We’ll remember the lesson all the more based on the work we had to do to learn it, so there’d damn well better be a lesson at the end of that tunnel. The Buried Giant is nothing more than a literary shell game, asking you to look close, only so that it can take your money and time as it palms its truths off for another day. There isn’t anything more to see here, no hidden tricks to the novel that a second read will clarify: you need only to recognize that what Ishiguro is saying on the first page is the same as what will be said on the last, and you can avoid this book with extreme prejudice.

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