The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – Review

“The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it.”

A butler named Stevens is heading across post-World War II England to visit an old friend and offer her a job on his staff; this was supposed to be an uneventful trip. His sheltered worldview is challenged, however, as the stark reality that his country has changed without his consent looms on the horizon. New experiences lead to painful reflections on times past, while shame and confusion thicken like mist as the pages turn. The Remains of the Day uses a simple premise to disguise a journey into heavy themes of memory, regret, and love.

Stevens’ mind is a wandering thing, flitting between topics like a bird between trees; this gives a loose and unmanufactured feeling to the novel’s structure, while snippy, deliciously passive aggressive dialogue keeps the tone light and makes it easy to breeze through despite heady themes. Serious conversation are undercut in accidentally hilarious ways by proto-typically English repression which characters must overcome just to express themselves.

There’s a truism saying it’s impossible to truly hate something you can empathise with, and this novel makes a good argument for it. Ishiguro makes a very difficult and stuck up character seem naive and lovable through masterful characterisation, showing how easy it is to confuse repression for dignity. Actions which could be viewed as despicable seem merely sad blunders by people no more malicious than the average man.

The certainties most novels offer are muddied through Ishiguro’s subtle deflation of the idea of memory as something that can always be trusted. Our protagonist’s recollections of the seemingly most important moments of his life are revealed to be faulty, a reflection of a time long past which have been muddied by the years in between; we are left wondering how ‘true’ this story really is.

Stevens’ life was spent in duty to a higher purpose as he saw it: serving one of the great gentlemen of England. But can a life be called well lived if it was in service to a man who made disastrous mistakes? Does seeing trust as a virtue excuse us from turning a blind eye to evil when it’s performed by people we feel know better than us? Ishiguro gives no simple answers. Finishing The Remains of the Day made me truly appreciate how tragic a life lived without the ability to love selflessly really is, however; dignity seems a hollow reward by comparison.
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The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

“How can old wounds heal while maggots linger so richly?”

In The Buried Giant, an elderly Briton couple wander through Anglo-Saxon England searching for a son they barely remember. The country seems cursed. People are forgetting their lives almost as fast as they live them. Memories still seep through the mist, though, and sow confusion in a world that has stopped wallowing in the past or dreaming of the future.

This book needs to be read with careful expectations. An elderly couple on a journey wouldn’t be an extraordinary premise for a standard realist literary novel; put dragons round a corner, however, and readers begin to wonder why the narrative are focused on more mundaner aspects of the world. I appreciate anything which bends genre, however, so I was still excited; unfortunately this novel was, for me, stronger in theory than execution.

Stories which find a good balance between the ordinary and supernatural are rare: The Magicians by Lev Grossman; Among Others by Jo Walton; Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke; arguably a vast swath of the work of David Mitchell. Ishiguro, however, through a combination of frustrating dialogue and poor pacing, just doesn’t make the list.

Like in his more realist writing, Ishiguro’s prose is understated, almost flat. The narrative of fading memories is tied into the physical details of the landscapes Axl and Beatrice travel across, as everything outside their immediate periphery fades away. This dreamlike vagueness creates a calm atmosphere, but characters talk with a specificity that undermines the mysteriousness of the prose, so the dialogue feels out of place with the setting. And there is a LOT of dialogue.

Characters act as mouthpieces so Ishiguro to explain anything of narrative or symbolic significance, and this is done with the same flat tone they use to discuss the sun, or never-dying love, or dragons. It’s as though Ishiguro is worried that we won’t pick up on something’s significance unless it’s explicitly discussed in-universe. As such, characters lose their distinctiveness (with the exception of Sir Gaiwan, who pops about around a third through and is the only character who has a unique voice, helped by the fact that he has sections in first-person) and I was unengaged from the book over, and over, and over again.

It’s not just dialogue that feels inconsistent. The rules of this universe are constantly bent on authorial whims. Characters’ memories return when it’s dramatically convenient, and it seems arbitrary as to which memories vanished in the first place. As such, everyone feel molded around the story Ishiguro is trying to tell, rather than fleshed-out people with agency.

Using fantasy as a backdrop can allow authors to create magic and legends which add a sense of grandeur and power and let them stretch our imaginations. Fantasy where internal consistency is disregarded, however, makes a novel which is utterly lacking in consequence. as they don’t remind us of people. The Buried Giant, in my opinion, felt like the latter.

There’s a telling moment later in the book where a climatic sword-fight ends in a single blow. I had heard Ishiguro talk about the influence of Akira Kurosawa on his action-scenes and the Japanese storytelling tradition of tension before a battle being far more important than the dazzle of combat itself. This is fine in theory, and could make an understated novel ramp up in excitement quickly. However, the clash finished so fast I was merely left wondering what the hell had happened. I went back, re-read the page, and thought, “That’s it?”

Unfortunately, “That’s it?” is a good way to describe my reaction to The Buried Giant as a whole. It felt like a long series of anti-climaxes.