An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, set off on a journey to find their son at a time when Britons and Saxons have been at bloody war. Whilst travelling, they meet Wistan, a Saxon warrior, whose job is to slay a dragon; an orphan boy in search of his biological mother and Sir Gawain, who has been commanded by King Arthur to protect the peace.
It has been said that out of our all our days there are fewer than fifty of which we have clear remembrance. Memories fossilised deep within us often resist excavation, emerging as shards broken from what we sense to be the whole. Childhood memories are often the most vivid and sensory: for me, the bleach smell of school toilets, the texture of my P.E. kit. But ask any sibling to recall a shared experience and it can feel like looking at a Cubist portrait – everything is there, but not quite how we remembered it to be.
The inherent subjectivity, even untrustworthiness, of memory has been much plumbed by Postmodern writers, including Kazuo Ishiguro, notably in The Remains of the Day where Stevens the butler modifies memory in order to provide his life with meaning. In his latest novel, The Buried Giant, Ishiguro returns to key themes of memory and forgetting. Here, memories (and therefore history) are not merely subjectively remembered and rewritten, but forgotten – buried – almost entirely, and on a gigantic scale. A premise both fascinating and, dare I say, unforgettable.
Speaking at Manchester Central Library, the day after its publication (interviewed by Sandeep Parma), Ishiguro revealed he spent much time considering when and where to set his novel, dismissing both post-World War France and Kosovo, in favour of Dark Age Britain – a period about which little is documented. The setting is an atmospheric land of “long sunken lanes,” and darkening skies, where oak and elm are swirled in thick mists and wolves are heard amidst distant hills. Dark forces lie creepily dormant and ogre attacks are commonplace. Landmarks (“The old thorn”, “the Great Plain”) sound colloquially plausible, but transpose seamlessly into the fertile land of the reader’s imagination – more so than if the setting was precise. Though not a reader of fantasy or myth, I stepped into this world fully, from page one.
Ishiguro juxtaposes war and animosity between people groups (here Saxons and Britons) with the enduring love of a married couple, Axl and Beatrice – two elderly, upright Britons who live on the outer fringes of the community warren.
An understanding had grown between them, in the silent way understandings do between a husband and wife of many years.
The couple’s marital relationship is increasingly affecting, until the final, transcendent end. They are a tragicomic duo who ramble on to each other in comfortable familiarity, retreading the same emotional ground as they walk. Axl nicknames his ageing wife “Princess”; he is the valiant prince, allaying her fear – though never completely. Something is off kilter; an air of mystery surrounds them. Axl is taunted by the local children. Beatrice is described as physically strong, yet walks lop-sided, as though “nursing some secret pain somewhere.” This ambiguity adds greatly to the narrative’s forward momentum as we wait for the authorial lens to pan outwards and reveal the full picture (deliciously withheld until the novel’s denouement). Ishiguro’s use of foreshadowing is especially masterful in helping to achieve narrative tension.
Outsiders like Axl and Beatrice hold the power to subvert norms. Their quest for illumination is anathema in a world “cursed with a mist of forgetfulness…” and their attempts are thwarted at every turn, especially by those in power. In many ways, the pair occupy the same position as the reader; looking in on the fictional world they inhabit. From start to finish, I felt allied with them against enemies of superstitious gossips, authority figures (history’s memory keepers) and monstrous attacks. I especially rooted for them when they decided to leave home, in search of their son and the memories they hope he will unlock; a quest which creates the novel’s central narrative thrust.
Our memories aren’t gone forever, just mislaid somewhere on account of this wretched mist. We’ll find them again, one by one if we have to. Isn’t that why we’re on this journey?
Chapter One is flawless in the way it establishes character, voice, tone, place and problem – writers, take note. Quest narratives such as The Buried Giant are incredibly satisfying in terms of character development, intrigue and end fulfillment. At times, the very act of reading felt like a journey; sometimes the terrain was uneven, I was mired down in the detail or revelations loomed up to trip me.
Our guide for the journey changed with differing points of view (Edwin and Sir Gawain each take the lead). There was also a lurking ever-present anxiety that the journey might be futile or end in disaster – which held my attention all the more. Ishiguro expects a lot of his reader to remember everything. Yet for all the characters’ confused, dream-like recollections, the novel was constructed, helpfully, in a series of episodes in which the action was lucid and well observed. I wondered to what extent this was helped by Ishiguro’s editing style, which is to refine the text in sections, before moving onto the next.
Interestingly, Ishiguro drew inspiration for The Buried Giant from Westerns – cowboys heading off into the sunset. Although the novel’s lineage can be more obviously traced back to the legend of King Arthur – whose nephew Sir Gawain and wizard Merlin feature as characters, further demonstrating Ishiguro’s talent for blurring genre boundaries. The novel is certainly haunted by meta-fictional references as the author unearths and re-writes literary histories.
Also noteworthy, is the novel’s intriguing narrative voice, prominent in the opening chapters. The voice is colloquial, folklorish, intrusive and, at times, that of a gossiping by-stander addressing the reader with disarming directness. Ishiguro has long shown a preference for addressing the reader by using the personal pronoun “you”. In previous novels, the use of “you” has denoted the closed, parochial world of the main characters’ thinking. But by chapter three of The Buried Giant, the “you” feels specific and in Chapter Fifteen the narrator directly addresses children slaughtered in war – an idea which remains, perhaps rightly, underdeveloped in order for the novel to stay within its initial parameters.
Some of you will have fine monuments by which the living may remember the evil done to you. Some of you will have only crude wooden crosses or painted rocks, while yet others of you must remain hidden.
The novel grapples with the problem of how societies can best achieve peace. The mist has, for a time, enabled Saxons and Britons to live peacefully, forgetting past atrocities. When the mist goes, hatred is renewed and the next generation arises desirous of land and conquest. Pagan warrior Wistan, consumed by vengeance, is highly dismissive of forgiveness and mercy. However, Axl and Beatrice are more forgiving of each other’s mistakes; through mercy their love is strengthened. Throughout The Buried Giant, I longed for Ishiguro to explore more deeply and clearly the difference between forgiving and forgetting.
The feeling in my heart for you [Beatrice] will be there just the same, no matter what I remember or forget – Axl.
Ishiguro’s resounding song is surely the enduring nature of love. Axl and Beatrice’s love is unchanging, even in the absence of shared memories. The same applies to maternal love. Beatrice feels things about (and for) her son, even though she is unable to recall the details of what has happened to him or how they parted. Love, Ishiguro implies, is the cure for the sickness of non-remembrance.
Axl observes that his life with Beatrice “is like a tale with a happy end, no matter what turns it took on the way”, and in this sense The Buried Giant has as much in common with fable and fairytale as it does fantasy. Though not the happy ending of fairytale, the novel’s close is imbued with a hope of peace. A rest in forgetfulness.