So, let’s just get this out of the way—this review will not pay attention to the trite tidbits already trodden on by previous critics; I will not spend much time musing on Kazuo Ishiguro’s prose nor whether his characterization fits his narrative (or if the narrative devices function superbly or lazily). In short, I will avoid most of the things which Ishiguro was chided on by Ursula K. Le Guin in that infamous review.
Already a couple of years old, Ishiguro’s first book in a decade has won much acclaim since its initial release. Finally, it has won its author the prestigious Nobel prize in literature. In the wake of this award, the hordes have been pontificating if Ishiguro truly deserves the award or if the award committee is playing politics. Obviously, there are heated opinions on both sides, from the liberal peanut gallery to the foaming-at-the-mouth conservative lynch-mobs.
It is enough to say that the committee is playing politics, but they have always played politics. As Sarah Brouillette reminds us, the Nobel prize committee “is not a homogenous unchanging force”. Rather, “It has shifted with the times, as definitions of what constitutes properly literary expression have shifted.” She goes on to say that “in the postwar period the prize has served to consolidate the literary as a manifestation of liberal reason, in which a high-cultural disposition is necessarily distanced, ‘balanced,’ fair, disinterested, dispassionate contemplation of world events and more embattled positions are avoided or denounced outright”. Which is similar to today’s politicization when we think of how “The 2005 recipient was Harold Pinter, whose acceptance speech was an indictment of US-led wars and occupations and the distortions of language that seek to justify them.” As an expression of an elite, Anglo-American class power, the Nobel Prize committee is hardly impartial, apolitical judges. To believe otherwise is to live in the world with all the wonder of a Republican before they discover Karl Marx.
Obviously, Ishiguro’s literary work is no exception to this politics as he has been very open in interviews where he talks about this latest work as a work of trauma. Lev Grossman recalls that
In the past, he [Ishiguro] focused on individual experiences, but now he wanted to look at the behavior of societies as a whole. Specifically, he was interested in memory, and the role that collective remembering and forgetting plays in the ways societies recover after catastrophes. He mentions Germany, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, South Africa–places where people did terrible things to one another and then had to learn how to live together afterward, side by side. How does a community move past that? ‘When is it better for a society to just agree to forget some bad things, so they don’t disintegrate into civil war or disorder or chaos?’ [Ishiguro] asks. ‘And when is it necessary to go back and really examine the seeds of things that are going wrong?’
Sharp readers will notice that Ishiguro’s grand transition is not merely in style and genre but in focus. The line has been crossed; Ishiguro The Buried Giant concerns itself not with individuals—the superstructure, in Marxist terms—but the base, that economic foundation of society which drives everything.
It seems an odd thing to say that Ishiguro’s book is about economics. But it is not actually unusual because the real idea is not so much about economics but post-economics, what happens to a society after a catastrophe. We do not immediately perceive it this way because Ishiguro’s novel is set in early-medieval England; as the opening line to the book makes clear, “You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated”. Rather, this is a place of bleak moorlands and a hellish landscape desolate of inns, with assistance to the weary traveler coming in the form of kindly strangers whom you never know if you can trust. Why things are this way is because of the Roman withdrawal and the Anglo-Saxon invasion, a series of events which forever altered the shape and function of England and destroyed one civilization to slowly build another.
Such a disaster is what shapes humanity. As one society thrives—Anglo-Saxons—another decline—Roman Britons— and so Ishiguro figures his text with many gruesome reminders, but perhaps none so than the following which is vividly described by Mark O’Connell
In one particularly vivid scene, Axl and Beatrice and Gawain cross a subterranean acreage of human remains. After an initial reluctance to acknowledge what is palpably beneath their very feet, Gawain finally admits the immediate reality, if not its cause:
‘Here are the skulls of men, I won’t deny it. There an arm, there a leg, but just bones now. An old burial ground. And so it may be. I dare say, sir, our whole country is this way. A fine green valley. A pleasant copse in the springtime. Dig its soil, and not far beneath the daisies and buttercups come the dead. And I don’t talk, sir, only of those who received Christian burial. Beneath our soil like the remains of old slaughter’.
And so for all that The Buried Giant clothes itself in the armor of chivalric romance and fantasy, it is also subtly using these formal structures to subvert from within the kinds of national mythologies that are so often built around them.
I do feel that the phrase “national mythology” is correct. After all, a great slaughter is a catastrophe by any other name. Politically, this is what ushers in the post-economic climate of the novel. More concretely, though, this national mythology is precisely that medieval Chivalry which formed the basis of Western exceptionalism (British and American imperialism, in other words). What Ishiguro’s novel does is to strip away the veneer and allow us, the readers, see the clumsy visage of old Arthurian knights in rusted armor wandering the countryside in search of honor. It is a sad sight but one which speaks to the reality of catastrophe.
Why it is sad is because the dreary old Arthurian knights and the Anglo-Saxon invasion are two of the cornerstones of British and American culture. The bedrock of Western civilization is not a grand tapestry of conquest and empire but this cruel desolation where peace is only ushered in by collective forgetting; “For it gradually transpires” writes Barbara Newman, “that the uneasy peace [between Britons and Anglo-Saxons] rests on a colossal act of forgetting: the slaughters of the recent past slumber just beneath the conscious recall” (333). Ishiguro’s novel pits these two cornerstones—a historical revision somehow combining both societies into one fiction—as an elaborate allegory for social conflict; literarily, the novel reveals the contradiction inherent within this mythology and shows how Western culture has always been at war with itself.
Ishiguro, then, demystifies the history of Whiteness. He betrays racist metanarratives in favor of a glimpse at the sordid underneath. The people in The Buried Giant are desperate and superstitious, they believe that an “ogre” bite will turn a child into a beast, and the priests which tend to these ignorable people openly proclaim that they are not even sure if God watches them anymore. Ishiguro writes of orphans, ghosts, declamations, and the general casting-out of the Western legend of good knights. His novel is one where the religious murder the skeptical and where social harmony is shattered in favor of slaughter. It is not a typical Arthurian story if we are to define The Buried Giant as such. Rather, it is an anti-Arthurian story, the kind of antidote to all too many Arthurian threads which paint Arthur as the savior instead of a morally dubious enforcer of social harmony.
The novel is timely, then, because in an age where radical right-wing extremists angrily rant against their medieval pseudo-history—proclaiming each and every new archeological discovery which disassembles their racism as “fake news” and “historical erasure”—Ishiguro’s tale of forgetting and remembrance unearths the squalid reality of that history, one where the average worker was familiar with and occasionally traded with their sworn enemies, one where avoiding violence was preferable to settling disagreements with violence, and where it is the bloody machinations of kings and lords which goad the common folk into violence. It is a story which would deeply unsettle those Rightists who would have you believe in some triumphalist revision of history where White people were at the cutting edge of each and every historical stepping stone (or were otherwise unjustly fettered by those nefarious “Jews” and “communists”). Ishiguro’s novel about an elderly couple traversing the ruins of post-war Britain is not without its missteps, but those mistakes are hardly relevant in the grand scheme.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “Are They going to Say This is Fantasy?” Book View Café, www.bookviewcafe.com/blog/2015/03/02/are-they-going-to-say-this-is-fantasy/. Accessed 17 October 2017.
Brouillette, Sarah. “Tragedy Mistaken for Management Theory: On Kazuo Ishiguro and the Nobel Prize in Literature.” Verso, www.versobooks.com/blogs/3430-tragedy-mistaken-for-management-theory-on-kazuo-ishiguro-and-the-nobel-prize-in-literature. Accessed 17 October 2017.
O’Connell, Mark. “The Abyss of Bones.” Slate, www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2015/03/the_buried_giant_by_kazuo_ishiguro_reviewed.html. Accessed 17 October 2017.
Grossman, Lev. “Review: The Buried Giant is an Arthurian Epic.” Time, www.time.com/3723602/the-return-of-the-king/. Accessed 17 October 2017.
Newman, Barbara. “Of burnable books and buried giants: Two modes of historical fiction.” Postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies (2016) 7, 328-335. Doi: 10.1057/pmed.2016.14