03 February 2022

Notes on The Buried Giant


Why is it when I read Kazuo Ishiguro I could laser-focus on what he's saying in the text before me? Was it a product of leisurely pacing of his prose? The slightly off yet so careful turns of phrase which intensified the act of reading. There were no overt modernist hijinks and purple pyrotechnics where readers multitask their mind to absorb the stream of images and weirdness. Ishiguro's modernism was hidden under the surface, buried like an egg or an iceberg. The readerly sensors in me could not help but observe the niceties and subtleties and embroideries of fantasy. He did display a tendency for the outlier in the dream logic (or illogic) of The Unconsoled. What he put on the page were all surface mannerisms. Behind the mise-en-scène lurked a fog of feelings, meanings, and epiphanies.

A strange spell befell the lands in what must be medieval times backdrop of The Buried Giant. Like a persistent (read: permanent) hangover, a mist of forgetfulness hung in the air. A physical and figurative fog dimmed the memories, both individual and collective, of inhabitants, Saxons and Britons both. If, indeed, collective memories existed. (Susan Sontag would like to qualify the concept). What caused this shady state of unremembered affairs? Ishiguro would bring us on a journey to discover the hidden mechanism of his forgotten world. 

The sally into unknown territories was led by Axl and Beatrice, the old couple who kept half-remembering or half-forgetting some possibly earth-shaking super-spreader events in the past. They would travel some distance to visit the dwellings of their son, whom they somehow half-forgotten, half-remembered. Along the way they would band together with a brave warrior looking after a dragon and a child cursed and expelled by his community. The setup was intriguing. Time would tell if all the elements would hang in a logical framework or the half-baked mist would simply evaporate and bring out the pot of gold in the light of day.

The narrator was partly to blame for his all-knowing asides and patronizing attitude to the reader. His writerly tone was rather irksome, but that was just me. He knew more than he would let know. 

In one such area on the edge of a vast bog, in the shadow of some jagged hills, lived an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice. Perhaps these were not their exact or full names, but for ease, this is how we will refer to them. I would say this couple lived an isolated life, but in those days few were “isolated” in any sense we would understand.

Thankfully, after a couple of chapters, the point of view would shift so that reader would no longer be at mercy of this narrator who would constantly check himself lest he spill the big secret and not-so-small mystery. Why, for instance, would the community of Axl and Beatrice take away their candles? 

Why, in the first place, would anyone forget but not forgive? As Beatrice quipped, “It’s queer the way the world’s forgetting people and things from only yesterday and the day before that. Like a sickness come over us all.” The pandemic of amnesia held sway over the land, and there seemed to be no remedy or inoculation in sight. 

All this forgetfulness: it's obvious people often lacked a sense of history. We kept on forgetting not because historical truth was inconvenient. We forgot because truth hurts. And people always loved to be hurt and to commit mass suicide. #NeverAgain #DisqualifyMarcos #MarcosDuwag

“But there’s one place we need to be cautious. Axl, are you listening to me? It’s when the path goes over where the giant is buried. To one who doesn’t know it, it’s an ordinary hill, but I’ll signal to you and when you see me you’re to follow off the path and round the edge of the hill till we meet the same path on its way down. It’ll do us no good treading over such a grave, high noon or not. Are you fully understanding me, Axl?” [emphasis supplied]

Like a giant buried hastily under the mound of a hill, shared history was a painful malaise, an irremediable malady, and hence must not be definitive. Historical truth, which had a ring of truth about it, was usually a product of unspeakable violence, so traumatic one must not excavate let alone speak of it lest the leviathan wakes. To remember in the world of Axl and Beatrice was taboo. One must not contaminate history because the offspring of history is truth, Cervantes admonished. Or was it Menard?

“How can it be they forget even this, and so soon after watching the warrior leave with two of their own cousins to do what none of them had the courage for? Is it shame makes their memories so weak or simply fear?” 

Shame and fear. It must be both. It had to be. Fiction is the father of historical revisionism, the sibling of post-truth, favorite cousin of fake news. Trolls were manufacturers of shame and fear. It must be shameful to remember. It must be fearsome. So we create our own comfortable false fictions in our minds and cast out true fiction. Because true fictions (i.e., ficciones) are a powerful set of tools to excavate the buried giants in our midst. I'm getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, the narrator spoke in the first person, but sometimes boldly addressed his story to "you" and yet he often qualified his observations with "perhaps" as if to distance himself from accountability. Then he would seem to disappear in the fog of free indirect style. By Chapter Four, the narrator yielded the point of view to another character, the boy Edwin, newly outcast from his Saxon community for being bitten by a monster. His community and kin were too superstitious and cowardly to let go of the fresh bite marks on the boy and the terrific image they project.

By Chapter Five (the end of the novel's first of four parts), the point of view seemed to shift to an omniscient one, the "learned" narrator who couldn't help himself to be encyclopedic and bubbly, becoming muted or perhaps he was already bored. Ishiguro's dialogues often veer into wooden exchanges. The sparks of wit and humor (as in the labyrinths of unrelenting confusion in The Unconsoled or the brute force reckoning of The Remains of the Day) were somehow dampened. 

To compensate for his dull dialogues, the novelist relied on wayward, expressive gestures. He particularly loved describing his characters at an angle. I mean, peering at something at a bent posture, making a pronounced angle from a vertical stance, as if to heighten the intensity and fire inside his characters.

His [Edwin's] eyes were fixed on the warrior’s back just in front of him, though intermittently he would angle his head to one side, as though trying to peer around the warrior’s legs at the thing on the ground. 

He [Ivor] was quite elderly, and though his back was relatively straight, his neck and head protruded from his shoulders at a grotesque angle. Nonetheless all present appeared to yield to his authority—the dog too ceased barking and vanished into the shadows. 

He [Wistan] seemed suddenly to see something in Axl’s own features and, for a small moment, to forget what he had been saying. He gazed intently at Axl, angling his head.

The angle shots in these three separate passages about three separate characters made the reader lean heavily on one side and appreciate the keen concentration of the characters.


  1. "Why is it when I read Kazuo Ishiguro I could laser-focus on what he's saying in the text before me? Was it a product of leisurely pacing of his prose? The slightly off yet so careful turns of phrase which intensified the act of reading. There were no overt modernist hijinks and purple pyrotechnics where readers multitask their mind to absorb the stream of images and weirdness."

    Tim Parks has addressed Ishiguro's penchant for simpplifying his prose in order to be more marketable:

    "More importantly the language is kept simple. Kazuo Ishiguro has spoken of the importance of avoiding word play and allusion to make things easy for the translator. Scandinavian writers I know tell me they avoid character names that would be difficult for an English reader."

    He's certainly sparse and direct in "The Remains of the Day", although that didn't harm my enjoyment many, many years ago.

    1. Thanks for sharing the link, Miguel. That's a troubling trend that Parks identified: a novel being written to be translation-friendly. In a way, it's like adopting a literary constraint but in the end still going against the spirit of constraint. In translating such, there's nothing to domesticate at all because the original is already dulled and tame.