the buried giant [book review]

Last year, I posted a review of Ishiguro’s  “When we were orphans”, with the comment that, while I enjoyed the novel and appreciated its multiple layers, while missing a strong enough grasp on the characters… I brought back from New York Ishiguro’s latest novel, “The Buried Giant“, with high expectations, doubled by the location of the story in an Arthurian setting, at a time when Britons had not yet been subsumed into Anglo-Saxon culture or forced to migrate to little Britain (Brittany). Looking forward a re-creation of an Arthurian cycle, possibly with a post-modern twist. (Plus, the book as an object is quite nice, with a black slice.)

“I respect what I think he was trying to do, but for me it didn’t work. It couldn’t work. No writer can successfully use the ‘surface elements’ of a literary genre — far less its profound capacities — for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it. I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”” Ursula Le Gun, March 2, 2015.

Alas, thrice alas, after reading it within a fortnight, I am quite disappointed by the book. Which, like the giant, would have better remained buried..  Ishiguro pursues his delving into the notion of memories and remembrances, with the twisted reality they convey. After the detective cum historical novel of “When we were orphans”, he moves to the allegory of the early medieval tale, where characters have to embark upon a quest and face supernatural dangers like pixies and ogres. But mostly suffer from a collective amnesia they cannot shake. The idea is quite clever and once again attractive, but the resulting story sounds too artificial and contrived to involve me into the devenir of its characters. As an aside, the two central characters, Beatrix and Axl, have hardly Briton names. Beatrix is of Latin origin and means traveller, while Axl is of Scandinavian origin and means father of peace. Appropriate symbols for their roles in the allegory, obviously. But this also makes me wonder how deep the allegory is, that is, how many levels of references and stories are hidden behind the bland trek of A & B through a fantasy Britain.

A book review in The Guardian links this book with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I fail to see the connection: Tolkien was immersed for his whole life into Norse sagas and Saxon tales, creating his own myth out of his studies without a thought for parody or allegory. Here, the whole universe is misty and vague, and characters act with no reason or rationale. The whole episode in the monastery and the subsequent tunnel exploration do not make sense in terms of the story, while I cannot fathom what they are supposed to stand for. The theme of the ferryman carrying couples to an island where they may rest, together or not, sounds too obvious to just mean this. What else does it stand for?! The encounters of the rag woman, first in the Roman ruins where she threatens to cut a rabbit’s neck, then in a boat where she acts as a decoy, are completely obscure as to what they are supposed to mean. Maybe this accumulation of senseless events is the whole point of the book, but such a degree of deconstruction does not make for a pleasant read. Eventually, I came to hope that the mists rise again and carry away all past memories of “The Buried Giant“!

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