Kazuo Ishiguro Slays a Dragon

Acclaimed author returns with a fine novel of fantasy and foreboding

              Cover by Peter Mendelsund
              Cover by Peter Mendelsund

Note: Kazuo Ishiguro doesn’t write fantasy.
And Margaret Atwood doesn’t write science fiction.

Also: War is peace, ignorance is strength, freedom is slavery, and shit is shinola.

But let’s not allow an author’s odd revulsion toward the genre he or she is nonetheless working in (if only briefly) to distract us for too long. Let’s pause only long enough to enjoy, in this case, how Ursula Le Guin expresses her dudgeon regarding Ishiguro’s eyeroll-inducing diss of fantasy when talking about his new novel The Buried Giant. And then let’s have another opinion – for instance: mine – on that recent release from Knopf.

Thing is, I loved The Buried Giant.

I loved it for a variety of reasons, though none of them impinge on the (somewhat milder) dudgeon-feelings and (perhaps exaggerated) eyeroll-actions I, too, embody when considering Ishiguro’s condescending slight.

The parts of the novel that Ms. Le Guin received little or no pleasure from – the “aimlessness of the characters’ behavior” and the “flat, dull quality of the dialogue” and the “lack of vivid and specific description” – were much of what appealed to me. But that’s maybe because the majority of my own behavior and that of my associates and most people I know is frequently, sad to tell, rather aimless; and was even moreso in more drug-addled times; and so the characters’ similarities in Buried Giant rang true. Likewise, the way we talk, when we’re not being our sometimes witty and persiflaginous selves, tends to have as flat and dull a quality as most quotidian speech, and so that treatment also seemed spot-on. And there’s nothing like the common iron of reality when it comes to properly anchoring a fantasy.

Although, actually, come to think … I didn’t find the dialogue to be all that relentlessly flat and dull, after all – and felt that any traces of such effect were justified by the resonance with those sorts of interchanges to be found in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, say, or other knightly tales of old. So the relative humdrummity of verbal intercourse, especially when couched in chivalric or marital politesse, added to both the mundane verisimilitude and the whole this-is-one-hell-of-an-ancient-epic atmosphere.

And, come to think further, wasn’t the characters’ aimlessness – even when exceeding in duration or intensity that of the most aggravating Austin slackers – wasn’t it, bothersome or not, accounted for with the story’s ubiquitous mist-of-forgetfulness? And wasn’t that aimlessness also a sweet respite from the more simplistically plot-driven actions to be found among the pages of what Le Guin might call the “contemporary commercial hackwork” that’s sometimes fantasy-flavored?

You know?

And I may be wrong, but I think Ishiguro’s descriptions – okay, his character Wistan’s descriptions – of the cunning trap of a tower in the midst of the Saxon-fort-turned-monastery, for one example, and of the significance of the positions of two warriors about to battle, for another example, were as vivid (and certainly as specific) as description gets. (Like a Roy DotyWordless Workshop” from some old issue of Popular Mechanics – except, strangely, with only words.) And that any vaguenesses of landscape and so on were intentional – to better conjure the mist-obscured setting and to suggest that the narrative itself is as indistinct and fading as most memories. Again, because this-is-one-hell-of-an-ancient-epic sort of thing.

And for me, it worked.

It worked whether I was reading it as its own tale or as if it were a sort of general allegory – a “story about the approach of old age to death,” as Le Guin suspects it may, in part, be. It almost worked as a definite allegory: “Let’s see,” I allowed myself to wonder, “if the Saxons are, like, the Palestinians, then maybe the Britons are Israelis? Or maybe it’s more of a specifically post-9/11 deal, and Sir Gawain is a stand-in for George Bush the Younger, and –” before I decided, fuck it, I don’t care if it maps well or at all to anything else in this world, regardless of the resonances I seem to sense as if they were wisps of mist in my parsing-full mind; I’m interested in this story, in these characters doggedly (when they remember and arrest their aimlessness) pursuing things that may or may not be true, in what’s to become of them and their world and the dragon when the dragon is reached.

And maybe Kazuo Ishiguro – in addition to addressing the insanity of us-against-them violence repeating itself throughout history and the approach of old age to death – maybe he’s also writing about the way memory, the personal and the collective, is subject to erosion and fabulation. Because that seems to be the case here, and he’s done that in his other books, and it’s evoked by the erosions and fabulations of the narrative’s own infrastructure. (See? Had I forgotten that I’d mentioned that earlier?)

And, as I said, it worked for me: I loved this book, and if my reasons for why it works for me make sense to you, I reckon you might also love it.

But, yeah, that “Are they going to say this is fantasy?” insecurity voiced in the interview that Le Guin references? As if it’d be an insult to be in Le Guin’s company – or the company of Kelly Link, Angela Carter, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Crowley, Hayao Miyazaki, Neil Gaiman, and so on?

C’mon, Kazuo: you’re among the smartest fiction writers around; you’ve written a multivalenced novel that’s in the one-hell-of-an-ancient-epic milieu and it’s got sprites and ogres and fairy-tale trappings and a bona fide if heavily compromised dragon to it.

What sad fool would say it isn’t fantasy?

The Buried Giant

by Kazuo Ishiguro

Knopf, 336pp., $26.95

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant, Knopf, Ursula Le Guin, fantasy, Arthurian tropes, genre fiction, literary fiction, dudgeon 'n' such

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