Katsuo Ishiguro has written an ambitious novel projecting worlds of fantasy, metaphysical concepts, and an archetypal quest. If you read it rapidly and don’t stop to make critical enquiry, The Buried Giant is a pretty good entertainment, otherwise if you look to closely it is a failed experiment and a flawed novel.
I was rolling along with the narrative, accepting the stock characters of fantasy like ogres and pixies (despite a nagging feeling that these traditional characters seemed to have been clumsily inserted into the narrative) until the questing crew met up with an aging, but still ready for chivalric battle, Sir Gawain (sans Greene Knight). I don’t know if Ishiguro selected this character to form a tie with the earlier stories of Arthur Pendragon or if Ishiguro just needed a somewhat anachronistic knight to add to his posse, but Gawain was for me an unfortunate choice.
Like most English majors from back in the early days when we actually read English literature, the one piece that I probably remember most was J. R. R. Tolkien’s edition of Sir Gawayn and þe Grene Knyȝt. Tolkien was at that time an internationally known medievalist and Gawayn was a key text of the period. Oh, I read Chaucer and Beowulf, but the Pearl Poet was my focus and Gawayn was my text. So when I read Ishiguro’s treatment of this great knight all I could envision was an aging Don Quixote still tilting at windmills. I kept reading to the end but the novel was spoiled for me fairly early on.
The Buried Giant is just messy, its language is boring and it never really engages the reader. The whole idea that the she-dragon (as designed by Merlin?) is spritzing the memory out of the local population is a reasonable way of discussing and gradually revealing memories as the mist clears, but Ishiguro doesn’t really tackle this subject head-on and at best we get two old people wondering if they actually have uncovered a memory or if they are just dreaming.
Good themes in the novel; rotten execution. The only things resolved at the end of the book are issues and themes that were obvious all along in the narrative. I’m not sure but one might interpret the end of the story as a warning that the buried giant will return now that memory has been revived. Ooh … a buried giant!
Many will read this novel; many will even find it excellent. Some will be aghast that Ishiguro, normally a strong writer, did such a bad job on The Buried Giant. If you’re really disappointed and want something important and challenging to read, try Sir Gawayn and þe Grene Knyȝt. It’s a story of the Knights of the Round Table. A Green Knight busts in one day and challenges the guys to a head-lopping contest. Gawain steps up for the King and whips off the Green Knight’s head in one blow but the Green Knight picks up his head and reminds Gawain that the next blow is his for the taking and he expects Gawain to show up at his castle in one year’s time. Then it starts to get really good. Here’s a taste: