I came to love Ishiguro’s writing when I was studying at university. Reading “The Unconsoled” I was astounded by the way he could stretch narrative to act like a dream in order to say so much about ambition, love, creativity and fear. I still think of it as one of my favourite novels. At the same time, I could understand why some people were put off by the book because of its lack of a totally coherent story. Perhaps if I first came upon it earlier or later in life I wouldn’t have been as dazzled. But, as it was, I became a committed fan and I especially appreciated the variations of story and subject he exhibited in his book of short stories “Nocturnes” – another book which received uneven responses. Since 1995, he’s only published a book about every five years so any new one comes as a major event for me and his legions of fans. On the day “The Buried Giant” was published, I was one of the first people queuing up to buy a copy.
One thing is for certain: Ishiguro never writes in the same style and this novel is no exception. This is a journey tale set in early Medieval Britain with fantastical elements. It focuses on an older couple who the narrator refers to as Beatrice and Axel. The two travel through the countryside trying to reunite with their son. It takes place in a post-Arthurian age where Britons and Saxons who had so recently been in heated conflict have now formed a somewhat peaceful co-habitation within the countryside. This is a revisionist mythical version of Britain’s history and one which Ishiguro only makes possible by having an unsettling mist cover the country to fog the memories of its inhabitants. King Arthur’s famed cousin and Knight of the Round Table Sir Gawain features in an elderly state wandering the land in search of purpose now that he’s lost his beloved king and is sworn to a solemn secret duty. The majority of the novel comprises of a sort-of quest to find a feared she-dragon with a group comprised of Sir Gawain, the older couple, a Saxon knight named Wiston and a boy rescued from ogres named Edwin. Their stories diverge in different ways as they encounter many other characters along the way. Each central character has his/her own secrets and forgotten past. As these are gradually uncovered we come to question the meaning of memory and how it impacts our relationships to our families, communities and sense of national identity.
The relationship between the old couple Beatrice and Axel is written about in such a tender way with Beatrice fretting about Axel’s welfare and Axel lovingly referring to her as “princess.” But an unsettling sense of foreboding hangs over their story as their pasts are so unclear to themselves. Without any good or bad memories all that’s left is their habits of togetherness. At one point Beatrice ponders: “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.” The novel draws into question whether love is something which becomes embedded within our identities or if it is a behaviour which fades away if there is no sense of a shared past. Joined with their encounters with distraught widows and boatmen who pose questions which challenge the strength of their love, there is a troubling question of whether their relationship will endure if they realize the truth about their past and the location of their son.
Perhaps relationships which function well can only do so if certain resentments and frustrations are forgotten. Equally many relationships can grow stale because of a fear of being alone after so long or turn into a habit too hard or difficult to break. At one point the old couple go to visit a wise elderly fascinating monk named Jonus who asks Beatrice: ‘Yet are you so certain, good mistress, you wish to be free of this mist? Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?’ Because, if you think constantly about all the niggling problems (small and large) you’ve had with your partner of many years, you’ll no doubt live in a state of perpetual anger at that person and yourself for staying with her/him. It’s only with forgiveness and letting go certain things from the past that anyone is able to maintain a relationship over a great span of time.
Ishiguro raises this problem to a societal level as well in his depiction of the relationship between Britons and Saxons. Sir Gawain likes to extol the virtues of King Arthur for bringing these disparate groups together to a point where they can co-exist in relative harmony. Yet, at what expense was this fellowship built and if the truth about crimes against humanity are known should reparations still be made even all these years later? Amidst speculation about why the mist is making everyone forget there comes another point of view: “The stranger thought it might be God himself had forgotten much from our pasts, events far distant, events of the same day. And if a thing is not in God’s mind, then what chance of it remaining in those of mortal men?” Rather than any celestial power, this got me thinking about the way national memory works. If things are not commemorated by state or taught in history there is a large chance it will fade from the public memory. Is this what helps civilization to continue reasonably peacefully or does it cause buried resentments to fester and go unresolved? In the novel, there is the question of whether the Britons and Saxons are still furtively planning to conquer each other. The knight Wiston ominously states: “When the hour’s too late for rescue, it’s still early enough for revenge.” When two large communities of people have been in such heated conflict it feels that a certain balance of forgetting and mindfulness is necessary. Otherwise the groups will constantly feel in opposition to each other and battles will frequently be rekindled. However, the novel opens up these questions with the threat of potential violence which once laid waste to the land lying buried just beneath the surface.
The novel includes an interesting approach to telling the story over the course of the book. Much of it has the tone of folklore with descriptions explaining directly to the reader the way society functioned at that time. There is a heavy amount of dialogue between Beatrice and Axel which reveals what they are like as people and how their relationship functions. Then there are some points which switch to first person accounts narrated by Sir Gawain or come from the point of view of the adolescent boy Edwin so we see their own motives and back stories which aren’t revealed when they are with the larger group. The last section of the book goes to another place entirely. This could come across as a hodgepodge of storytelling, but it gave me different access points for coming to a larger understanding about the collective history of these characters. There are naturally several characters or particular parts of the story which I would have liked a more complete picture of, but it felt like Ishiguro preferred to leave many of these intentionally mysterious.
It feels too soon to tell how I rate this novel against other books by Ishiguro that I’ve read or even if I feel like the novel was successful on its own or not. There is a haunting quality to the book which has left me with certain vivid images found in the story and it’s left me pondering the nature of memory. It’s interesting to compare this novel against recently published “The Chimes” which speculates upon a dystopian future where memory is also erased. These books call into question what role memory plays in the formation of identity and whether we are freer when we’re not weighted down by the positive and negative aspects of our past. Whatever conclusions can be made from reading “The Buried Giant”, it did make me feel like I was boy again being read a particularly engrossing bedtime story which felt emotionally real and just beyond my understanding.