The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

For once I thought I had the metaphor right as I read. The people all have minds that are dysfunctional, they can’t remember anything properly, not short term, not long. They have vague, mushy memories, if any at all – only the present means anything to them. I thought he had created a Facebook world and set it in a primitive sixth century past. It was terribly clever, everybody would set upon some unfortunate individual for a bit and then, suddenly and entirely move on much as they do in the age of social media bullying. Groups ebbing and flowing, as one thing and then another grabs their oh too fleeting attention. It all made sense.

But then I read Ishiguro talking about what he’d written and he said it was about warrior societies and how forgetting is part of how they survive. That made sense too. On an individual level we know that memory must be discretionary. The person who recalls all is one who cannot function. Does the same pertain to the collective unit, community or society? Now I’m thinking, for example, of Germany and Austria after WWII. Australia attempting to come to terms with the idea that the continent belongs to groups of people who have been treated abominably since the start of White Settlement. Truth and Reconciliation in Rwanda. As a historian I’m committed to the belief that remembering is fundamentally important. But is it? Are the potentially devastating consequences of remembering worse, or better than those of forgetting? 

Put like this, it seems to me that Ishiguro is asking a question, the significance of which cannot be understated and which is particularly apposite at a moment in time where catastrophe is upon us. As we move into a new world – which might be PK Dick’s The Penultimate Truth, or Atwood’s Orxy and Crake, or Soylent Green, Forster’s The Machine Stops, or Frayn’s A Very Private Life – will it be better to forget the past, the one with trees and water and food that didn’t come out of tubes, where nature was our friend. Where the richest person wasn’t that far apart from the poorest, not compared with the future that we are building up to. Are we really going to want to sit our children’s children on our laps and tell them about those good old days? Are we going to be ready to explain what happened?

Or should we forget? Become used to a life lived inside our tiny houses, conducting everything through the internet, so that by the time the catastrophe is firmly upon us, we will already be addicted to how things are. Will the brave new world we are approaching be one in which memory is a curse?

I find the idea that this is fantasy fiction absurd. For a start, Ishiguro has less than zero interest in any of the conflicts which take place. They fight, somebody wins, it all happens over a sentence or two. I’m not complaining! And for another, it completely fails the xkcd test:


Despite this, the book was nominated for various ‘fantasy’ awards. Perhaps that’s why it was the only novel apart from his first that wasn’t put forward for major awards. (Source for this is wiki, but its reference is to a dead link.)

Apparently Ishiguro struggled with this. His wife read an early draft and said it just wouldn’t do at all. He took that to heart and continued to labour at great length upon it. I’m curious to read the version his wife put in the green bin. It is obvious that a book written about people with no memory is going to suffer from an unavoidable dullness, but I found it strangely compelling nonetheless.

Overall? It’s a book that is trying to deal with a profound and traumatic question. It makes sense to have set it in a distant past as otherwise our own memories and understanding would have corrupted our reading of it. But I wonder if it could have been done better? And I have no idea whether to recommend it or not.

9 thoughts on “The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

  1. And then there’s A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker. I have difficulty finishing these kind of books. I like and agree with your graphics.

    • Yes, it’s an xkcd I often find myself quoting. I’m afraid Le Guin failed the test in The Dispossessed.

      I haven’t yet read or seen A Clockwork Orange – shame on me!

      Hoban’s another author I haven’t read yet – but I see Riddley Walker on the shelves so I have no excuse.

  2. This is the only Ishiguro novel I’ve read so far that I have not loved. I thought it was because I listened to it on audio, but then again, maybe not…

    • If only we could read the original! I don’t know if I am too kind to this book in my comments, I do have a lot of respect for Ishiguro, it isn’t easy to pan his work.

  3. It’s so hard, to pan his work. I too want to say it’s the Ishiguro that I’m less excited about. I’ve read it twice, I think the second time it was a bit better, but I don’t know, the medium was not one I click with. I relate to the Europeanness of The Unconsoled much more than to the Arthurian background of this one. The relationship between the elderly couple is just beautiful, though. I had read or heard about the wife suggestion. I heard it was because she thought it didn’t sound ‘medieval’, in the sense that the language was more ‘contemporary’. I believe he achieved that feeling in the book, the quality of not sounding as a modern person writing in the old times.

    I see his usual topics, -adultery, memory, honor, love, broken relationships, death, loyalty, past, and that always present thing of the narrator recalling something in the past and being ambiguous about his “reading” of the incident, and always placing so much importance to something that nobody can tell how it happened, if it happened.

    I do know something. I LOVE talking about his books, this one included.

    I admire him a lot.

    He’s a sort of Jane Austen, in the sense that his books inform each other, and the more of them we read and re-read, the better we esteem them all as a corpus. Great thing is that he has a few titles only. I used to think it’s too few, but that forces me to re-read.

    As it happens, I’m always reading and obsessing over his books.

    • ‘…his books inform each other, and the more of them we read and re-read, the better we esteem them all as a corpus. Great thing is that he has a few titles only. I used to think it’s too few, but that forces me to re-read.

      As it happens, I’m always reading and obsessing over his books.’

      Although I’ve read all his books except the one about the children and harvesting (I was too appalled from the moment I opened it) I’ve never even thought about the idea that they inform each other. I can see the attraction, then, in re-reading them. But then I hit that problem, which I’ve resolved the other way.

      Imaginging the luxury to be contemplating my life on my deathbed. I will regret all the books I’ve never read, not the ones I didn’t reread. Or so the scene in my head has it. A couple of exceptions: The Great Gatsby which I regularly reread. Michael Frayn’s Landing on the Sun, which I read several times over a short period. But mainly I pull something new off the shelf and cross it off the infinity of books I would like to have enough life to read. Wouldn’t it be great to have 48 hour days and to spend half of each one reading.

      • Hahaha.
        I’m very fascinated by seeing a bit about how your mind works.
        We humans are something else!
        Apart from wishing to have much more time to read and chat about books as well, my deathbed scene is different than yours. My motivation to read new books resides almost exclusively in the fact that my reading friends love and admire certain books and authors I have not read. But I crave the depth of rereading my favorites, and of going back to the authors I love.

        For example, I am very excited about rereading One Hundred Years of Solitude.

        Most books and authors don’t inspire me to a reread, though.

        And some authors I am really curious. But no, I am happy knowing that I won’t read most of the books in existence. I am after certain ones, which, however, are a ton anyways.

        • I will be the first to admit, I’m a very shallow reader, not to mention a very literal one, which gets me into trouble now and again.

  4. I should also have said yes, I absolutely agree about his use of language, I felt like I was there and I think that increased my sense of unease. Kudos to Ishiguro for putting me there.

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