Posts Tagged ‘Kazuo Ishiguro’

buriedCamelot, it’s not. The Dark Ages shadow the setting of Kazuo Ishiguro’s curious new novel, The Buried Giant (Knopf, digital galley), a fable of sixth-century Britain and of myth and memory. The Romans are long gone, King Arthur is dead, and Britons and Saxons share a gloomy land of forest and fens where ogres roam and pixies lurk. A mysterious mist acts like a collective amnesia, shrouding the countryside and whispering rumors of the she-dragon Querig.

Out of this fog emerge a long-married, elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, tender with one another and their frailties. They have vague memories of a long-lost son, and after their hill-warren neighbors take away their single candle, they decide to visit him in his village several days away. Beatrice also seeks help for a nagging pain in her side and wants to learn more of the mist that melts memories good and bad. She has heard of a ferryman who won’t let them cross a river together without questioning their mutual devotion. What if she cannot remember all the intimacies of their life and they are separated?

But Axl, who sometimes recalls flashes of a time when he was perhaps a soldier in the bloody wars against the Saxons, is wary. “Promise, princess, you’ll not forget what you feel in your heart for me at this moment. For what good’s a memory returning from the mist if it’s only to push away another?”

This being a quest tale of sorts, Axl and Beatrice face challenges, be it crossing a bridge or staying overnight in an isolated monastery. They also take on traveling companions — Wistan, a tall Saxon warrior; Edward, an outcast orphan who carries the scar of a creature’s bite; and ancient Sir Gawain, nephew of Arthur, clad in rusted armor and riding an aged, swaybacked steed. Both Wistan and Sir Gawain guard secrets from the past and are concerned with the whereabouts of Quering. A showdown is inevitable.

Ishiguro adopts a mannered, controlled narrative style to suit his subject, but the first part of the book is slowed by tedious, repetitive dialogue as the characters search their memories. Both Wistan and Sir Gawain find Axl’s face familiar from a distant past. Beatrice frets about the future and the ferryman. Too often, explication substitutes for drama, the action happening offstage, as when Wistan escapes from a burning tower that traps the sword-wielding soldiers intent on his death. Ishiguro describes an attack by the grasping pixies in the same even tone as he depicts a grass-munching goat tethered on a hillside as dragon bait. Symbols abound, drawn from history and legend, and allegory is implicit.

Still, the writing can be exquisite. Sir Gawain’s wistful reveries echo with yearning. Taken as a whole, the story is artful, and the ending, although expected, still devastates.

The Buried Giant may be a departure in genre for Ishiguro, but the themes of memory, identity, guilt and forgiveness are familiar from such past works as Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans. For what are we if not our memories, our stories?


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Even before the credits rolled at the end of Never Let Me Go, I could tell who hadn’t read Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel before seeing the movie. Some had already walked out. Others were murmuring, “This is depressing,” or “Why were the students so passive?” Mainly, “I don’t understand . . .”

I’m a firm believer in reading a book before you see the movie. So what if you know what’s going to happen? Same thing if you see the film first, but at least reading is a first-hand experience. The writer’s vision hasn’t yet been filtered through a director, screenwriter, etc. And generally for readers, the books are better than the movies, The Godfather being a notable exception.

But I don’t really believe in comparing books to movies because it’s like comparing apples to oranges. As  Larry McMurtry once said — I’m paraphrasing here — the best apple in the world can’t beat an orange at being an orange.

That being said, I loved the book Never Let Me Go. I liked the movie. Because it had been several years since I read the novel, I reread it after seeing the movie, somewhat surprised at how faithful it was to the book in so many scenes. My initial reaction was that it wasn’t faithful enough. But I think that’s because the movie reveals a major plot point fairly early on, whereas Ishiguro’s elegiac narrative unfolds in impeccably controlled fashion. Something is odd about the exclusive English boarding school Hailsham from the first, but you don’t know exactly what. Disquietude grows as grown-up Kathy recalls her mostly halcyon days at Hailsham and her friendship with fellow students Ruth and Tommy. 

I also think a key scene in which young Kathy hugs a pillow while listening to the love ballad “Never Let Me Go,” shifts its emphasis needlessly. Then there’s the incredibly poignant ending. More is explained in the book; filmgoers end up “told and not told,” to echo Miss Lucy’s phrase.

Read the book. See the movie. I can’t get either out of my mind.

Open Book: I bought a paperback of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (Vintage) after first reading a library copy. I knew I wanted it on my shelf next to The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans, my other Ishiguro favorites. I saw the movie at our local independent movie-cafe, The Enzian, because it was the only place it was playing. Too much talking among patrons and too many interruptions by waiters. And how is it possible to ruin a turkey sandwich?

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I’ve had company from out of town and been hanging out with friends, which puts me behind on reading and writing. But there’s been lots of talking about books — who’s reading what, can’t stand this, what do you think of that. One question invariably arises: When do you give up on a book?

Several of my friends always finish what they start, trudging on to the bitter end. This book isn’t going to beat me, they declare, even as they put it down to read a magazine or turn on the TV. Others admit to skimming but vow to finish. Then there are those who feel no guilt about setting aside a book they don’t like or in which they’ve lost interest.

Over the years, I’ve finally become a setter-aside, believing that life is too short for bad books. I don’t necessarily mean “bad,” in that I’m sorry a poor tree gave its life for this tripe, although there are way too many of those non-starters around. No, I mean “bad,” as in wrong for me at this particular time for whatever reason. So I give a book 30 minutes or 30 pages, and if I’m not hooked, I’m outta there.

I never finished Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, even though people whose opinion I respect think it’s a masterpiece. I made it about halfway before deciding this was not the book for me, that I disliked all the characters and the plot was a downer. I had my own family dramas, thank you very much. I wanted escape, entertainment. I just wasn’t in the mood.

I may go back to it someday, but then again, there are way too many books I want to read, that are intellectually stimulating, wonderfully written and keep me turning pages. That’s the way I feel about John Banville’s new novel, The Infinities, in which several Greek gods insert themselves into human lives. It even sent me back to to Roberto Calasso’s splendid narrative meditation on the meaning of myth, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. I may even pick up Edith Hamilton’s Mythology before I’m finished with this tangent.

Not your cup of tea? Sip it, turn up your nose, move on.  Tastes vary. I admit to being disappointed when a longtime friend whose reading almost always matches mine disliked Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which is one of my favorite novels of the last decade. Then again, I think she liked The Corrections. So there.

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