Just read The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro, and I have a lot of questions. What in the world was the author trying to say? Should I be worried because I don’t know? Or should he?
The story is about Axl and Beatrice, Britons (Celts) in post-Arthurian England. They are elderly, and their memories are fading, but so are the memories of all those around them. They decide to leave their village, where they are being persecuted because they are old, and travel to visit their son. On their journey they meet a knight (Sir Gawain, nephew of King Arthur, who has grown old), a Saxon warrior, and a young boy with special unnamed powers. They wander around, talk a lot, share some mild adventures,
As with others of Ishiguro’s novels,(like The Remains of the Day), much is suggested, little is directly stated.
The giant is mentioned in the beginning as a physical entity, a ordinary giant; by the end, the giant has become something else. The warrior, Wistan, says, “The giant, once well buried now stirs.” And I understand that the giant is now war and conquest.
I had the feeling that Ishiguro was trying to say something, trying to get me as a reader to understand something. But I found myself more frustrated at the lack of directness than intrigued.
To give you – and me – something to think about, Ishiguro said:
“Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?”
(The genre question is another discussion. If you want to go more deeply into it, read this Guardian article in which Ursula Le Guin takes Ishiguro to task.)
My question is about more than genre; it’s about the relationship between a writer and his readers, and the unstated communication that goes on behind the words.
Is Ishiguro too subtle? If he’s trying to “say” something, get the reader to think a certain way about the effect of the book, is there a point at which subtlety, allegory, is overdone?
Does his subtlety diminish his skill as a writer?
If an author is trying to “do” or “say” something, and readers don’t get it, does that mean the book is a failure? If this wasn’t from Ishiguro, would readers enjoy it, and “get it”?
I shouldn’t have to know what he’s trying to say. I should be able to enjoy the book for the story itself and find the story satisfying. And I should be able to discern what the author is trying to say.
Pilgrim’s Progress flickr Creative commons by PMM
Neil Gaiman, in his New York Times review of The Buried Giant, confesses his “inability to fall in love with it.” He says, “I suspect my inability to fall in love with it, much as I wanted to, came from my conviction that there was an allegory waiting like an ogre in the mist….” (you’ll have to read the rest of the quote online to see what Gaiman thought the allegory was.)
It may be too simple to state that the book is allegory (extended metaphor); certainly, it has the quality of allegory, like Pilgrim’s Progress. The boatman in the book, for example, immediately brought to mind Charon, the boatman who ferried the dead to the underworld.
Gaiman continues, “it guards its secrets and its world close.” Too close, maybe?
Charlie Jane Anders, reviewing the book on io9, called it a “weird mess,” and said,
Ishiguro’s story is dark and very strange, and leaves you with questions and riddles rather than explanations. The end of the book is one that’s going to haunt and perplex me for a while — which, in the end, is the ultimate proof that this is a book worth reading.
Really? Haunt, yes, but must we be perplexed? Is it good storytelling to perplex readers? Or is it just that Ishiguro missed the mark in his intention?
If you really want to know, Ishiguro explains what he was trying to do, the “universal statement” he was trying to make, in the Guardian article. I certainly didn’t get that out of the book. You can take what you want from what he says, you can decide it says something different to you (like Neil Gaiman), or you can keep re-reading until you figure it out for yourself.
Do I have to read what the author intended in order to understand the book? Shouldn’t I be able to understand it on its own? In one reading?
My head hurts from all these questions. I liked the book, the story was intriguing and the relationship between Axl and Beatrice was touching. But I felt unsatisfied, frustrated by my lack of understanding about what the author was trying to say.
I don’t like working this hard to get meaning from a book. Lazy, I know. Give me a good murder mystery in which the detective sits everyone down at the end and explains who killed who and why and how and where. Miss Plum in the library with a candlestick.
See my Goodreads review of The Buried Giant