I finished The Buried Giant last night and then I read the rather dismissive review in The New Yorker by James Wood (see the link in the Books Read column to the left). And maybe it’s that I was fairly fresh off of Mort(e) or maybe it was something else, but I didn’t so much care for the review (which complains that the dialogue is reminiscent of something out of Monty Python) which leads me to try to put into words why I liked this book.
The obvious, Mort(e)-reactionary explanation is that Mr Ishiguro can actually work a sentence, a paragraph, a metaphor. He understands how to build sympathetic characters and, regardless of how outlandish or foolish his premise is (a dragon’s breath is clouding the memories of all the inhabitants of post-Authurian Britain), he can still write for adults about relatively important themes.
One obvious theme, which perhaps is shared by Mort(e), is that War is Bad. That dividing the world into Us and Them and then making sure that whatever They do, We do back to them, much worse, and we must never, ever forget the injuries done on a national level is bad. I don’t think The Buried Giant is too subtle on that point and I don’t think that I’ve misrepresented anything about the book in this brief little paragraph. It’s a concept I tend to think is correct though I find it hard to believe that it’s one that most of my neighbors, in the comfort of their middle-class, liberal Seattle lives, would seriously think was wrong. I don’t know how I’d feel about a well-written book that used up 317 somewhat heavily leaded pages to deliver that message.
But there’s another, more Ishiguro level to this book which I find harder to summarize and that the long quote I’ll share here, that comes from the final chapter, fails to represent properly as well. It’s the real reason to read the book, to overlook the absurdity of the Sir Gawain language, the point that I think James Wood, with his very impressive credentials, seems to miss. It’s the quiet struggle of the daily business of living that, I think, is perhaps Mr Ishiguro’s specialty. Maybe Mr Wood has never had a long-term relationship go south and has never spent the wee sma hours chewing over just where it went wrong and what he should have done differently. We all read the book that says something we already think, I sometimes believe, and so, for me, The Buried Giant isn’t about Sir Gawain prancing about on his magnificent horse, doing battle with a giant
rabbit dragon, nor is it about the evil of multigenerational
terrorism and peoples driven to hatred by long exposure to atrocities. It’s
about an old couple who have seemingly succeeded in what so many of us find
impossible to pull off, and who possibly are deluded in their own views of
their feelings for each other . . . or whose feelings are, at the end of the
day, not going to be enough. (Honestly, I don’t know what the final “message”
of the book might be on this level; I just know that it speaks to me somehow.)
If she convicts herself for the first part of it, there’s plenty lay at my door for the next. For it’s true there was a small moment she was unfaithful to me. It may be, boatman, I did something to drive her into the arms of another. Or was it what I failed to say or do? It’s all distant now, like a bird flown by and become a speck in the sky. But our son was witness to its bitterness, and at an age too old to be fooled with soft words, yet too young to know the many strange ways of our hearts. He left vowing never to return, and was still away from us when she and I were happily reunited.”
“This part your wife told me. And how soon after came news of your good son taken by the plague that swept the country . . . But why blame yourself for it? ”
“I forbade her to go to his grave, boatman. A cruel thing. She wished us to go together to where he rested, but I wouldn’t have it. . . . A cruel thing I did sir, and a darker betrayal than the small infidelity cuckolded me a month or two.”
“What did you hope to gain, sir, preventing not just your wife but even yourself grieving at your son’s resting place?”
“Gain? There was nothing to gain, boatman. It was just foolishness and pride. And whatever else lurks in the depths of a man’s heart. Perhaps it was a craving to punish, sir. I spoke and acted forgiveness, yet kept locked through long years some small chamber in my heart for vengeance. A petty and black thing I did her, and my son also.”
. . .
“And I think it’s no single thing changed my heart, but it was gradually won back by the years shared between us. That may be all it was, boatman. A wound that healed slowly, but heal it did. For there was morning not long ago, the dawn brought with it the first signs of this spring, and I watched my wife still asleep though the sun already lit our chamber. And I knew the last of the darkness had left us.”