Ishiguro, Kazuo

Review of The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Image result for the buried giantWhat was it about?

Axl and his wife Beatrice live in a medieval village in the aftermath of the Saxon wars. For some mysterious reason, they are not allowed to own a candle. They are also unable to remember past events. Rumor has it that a mist is responsible for this forgetfulness. One day, Axl and Beatrice decide to leave their village to visit their son, whom they haven’t seen in ages. They stop at a monastery because Beatrice has a pain in her side, and she thinks a monk living there can help her identify the source of her pain. A young boy named Edwin and his warrior friend Wistan join the couple because Edwin has been attacked by an ogre. The people living in his village think he’s cursed. The Buried Giant is set in an Arthurian universe in the style of the early Arthurian legends, but it is not an Arthurian retelling. While it is marketed as a fantasy, it is somewhat of a cross between T.H. White’s Once and Future King, and Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel is at once a fantastical adventure and a meditation on guilt, memory, and the collective stories we tell.

What did I think of it?

For some reason, this book is marketed as a new Game of Thrones. No wonder so many readers have been disappointed by the story! Thankfully, I knew what to expect. After reading a few negative reviews of the book, it occurred to me that Ishiguro was trying to write in the style of the early Arthurian romances. As in those romances, all of the characters in The Buried Giant are one-dimensional, the dialogue is awkward, and the plot is outrageous.

So what’s the point?

It seems to me that Ishiguro was trying to write an Arthurian tale through a postcolonial lens. Despite the medieval feel to the story, there is also something very modern in its approach. Unfortunately, I can’t go into more detail without spoiling the book. I’m a bit worried I’ve already said too much, but too many readers have been mislead by the blurb at the back of the book. I need to set the record straight.

The Buried Giant was so atmospheric despite its outrageous plot and flat characters. I particularly loved the chapters that explored Sir Gawain’s thoughts. I was genuinely interested in each of the characters even though I knew that Ishiguro was giving us an allegory. The most off-putting aspect of the book was Axl’s relationship to Beatrice. He calls her “princess” all the time and often downplays his wife’s concerns. Was this meant to be a parody on the Arthurian romances of the 12th century?

If you like books that explore memory and collective identity, I definitely recommend The Buried Giant. But be warned that this is no Game of Thrones.

Favorite Quote

“But then again I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn’t like these raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I’m wondering if without our memories, there’s nothing for it but for our love to fade and die.”

Chrétien de Troyes, Courtly Love

Review of Yvain ou Le Chevalier au Lion by Chrétien de Troyes

What was it about?

Calogrenant, one of King Arthur’s knights, recounts the day he was defeated by a knight named Esclados at a magical spring. Hearing how his cousin was humiliated, Yvain vows to avenge the great insult. He follows the path Calogrenant described and reaches the aforementioned spring. Yvain fills the bucket with water and spills it on a nearby stone; as soon as the water splashes on the stone Yvain finds himself caught in a violent storm. When the storm dies down, he is confronted by Esclados – the protector of the spring. But Esclados is no match for Yvain and is defeated with a blow to the skull. At the defeated knight’s castle, Yvain receives protection and an invisibility ring from Lunette, the servant of Esclados’s widow Lady Laudine. Yvain falls in love with the grieving widow, and by some compelling argumentation, Lunette convinces Laudine to marry Yvain. Laudine is preparing to settle down with her new husband when Yvain is suddenly called away by King Arthur and Sir Gawain to participate in the king’s tournaments. Lady Laudine accepts his departure on one condition – that he return within a year. But Yvain’s plans are confounded by those of other men and women who need his assistance, and he fails to keep his promise to his wife. Yvain ou le Chevalier au Lion (Yvain, the Knight of the Lion) by Chrétien de Troyes follows Yvain on his many quests as a valiant and chivalrous knight-errant.

What did I think of it?

What comes to mind when you think of Arthurian legends? A powerful king who is well loved by his people? A court filled with handsome knights and graceful ladies? These images of King Arthur and his kingdom have inspired countless fantasy novels and movies. But in the 12th century, a French poet named Chrétien de Troyes put forth a different image of Arthur – an irresponsible king whose kingdom is held together by power-hungry, sex-crazed knights. Lancelot is actually quite an irritating character in Le Chevalier de la Charette (the Knight and the Cart). I started reading The Once and Future King by T.H. White (a modern retelling of older Arthurian legends) and I noticed in the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon that people were disappointed by the portrayal of their favorite characters, most notably King Arthur and Sir Lancelot. I suspect that White was more inspired by the French legends than the English ones, because the French legends often resemble Monty Python sketches. Magical objects appear without rhyme or reason, and the characters are as one-dimensional as Flat Stanley (only the setting seems to change). Yet, this is precisely the reason why I prefer the French legends to the English ones. They conform to my sense of humor.

Yvain is a rare Chrétien de Troyes tale because it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Also, the title character is a pretty compelling knight. He defends the vulnerable and acknowledges the debt he owes others. What was most surprising to me, though, was how exciting Yvain’s adventures were to read. There wasn’t a dull moment in the whole book. The rich commentaries on love are the icing on the cake. If you have only ever read English Arthurian legends or have been disappointed in the past by the French legends you’ve read, you should give Yvain a go. It might prove to be a pleasant surprise.

Favorite Quote

[From the 1963 modern French verse translation by André Mary, published by The Laurel Language Library – now out of print]:

“Il en garde le souvenir cuisant en lui-même, mais l’amour qui l’a envahi et le maîtrise adoucit de son miel cette amertume. Son ennemie emporte son coeur: il aime la créature qui le hait. La dame, à son insu, est vengée de la mort de son mari et bien mieux qu’elle n’eût pu le faire, puisque l’Amour s’en est chargé, l’entremise des yeux. Cette atteinte est plus redoutable que coup de lance ou d’épée: un coup d’épée se guérit vite, quand le médecin y met ses soins et sa peine, mais la plaie d’Amour empire d’autant plus que le médecin est plus proche.”

[My translation]: [Yvain] keeps the painful memory [of Kay’s insults] deep inside of him, but Love who invaded him and masters him calms with its honey this bitterness. His enemy steals his heart: he loves the creature whom he hates. The lady, in time, is avenged of the death of her husband and better than she could have herself, since Love took care of it, the mediator of the eyes. This attack is more dangerous than the blow of a lance or of a sword: a sword’s blow heals quickly, when the doctor cares for it, but Love’s wound is aggravated more as the healer comes nearer.