The Buried Giant
“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?”
What a fascinating writer Kazou Ishiguru is. After a ten year hiatus he returns with his seventh novel, The Buried Giant, and it is – at first glance – a historical fantasy novel…”every so often, an orge might carry off a child into the mist. The people of the day had to be philosophical about such outrages”. We are in a sixth century Britain (?) that has seen King Arthur succeed in uniting the country with the once warring Britons and Saxons now living side-by-side, in harmony; a country of orge’s and dragons, knights and warriors. Is this really the author of Remains of the Day and The Unconsoled ?
It is indeed, but whilst this novel nods to Tolkien, Beowulf, and the Arthurian legend, this novel is a different beast. It contains the kind of action you’d expect in a fantasy genre novel, but here it is relayed matter of factly and without excitement. And that is the point, because that is not what the book is about. This isn’t meant to be competing within the genre. Instead it is a book about memory, trust and deception; love and tenderness; war and vengeance.
The book is essentially the story of a journey (hello Tolkein). In this instance a decision made of a couple of Britons – Axl and Beatrice, and elderly couple – to walk to a nearby village to reunite with their son. He is a son they barely remember but they are sure he must reside at a nearby village and that they will all immediately recognise one another when they are united. This may sound like they are Alzheimer’s suffers but actually it’s the whole of England that is afflicted with a collective amnesia. A mist, literal and figurative, has descended. “It’s queer the way the word’s forgetting people and things from only yesterday and the day before that. Like a sickness come over us all.”
The couple encounter a number of people on their journey, in particular: A boatman, a Saxon warrior called Wistan, a young boy, who has been bitten by a dragon, and old knight, Sir Gawain, nephew of Arthur.
The boatman, who we first encounter early on is the key figure. Like most classic depictions he is clearly a man tasked with taking souls to the other side. Most travel alone. Only if a couple can convince him of their devotion will he allow them to travel together.
Axl and Beatrice seem devoted to one another and believe that if all their memories were restored they would surely meet this standard and be allowed to cross together, but they are similarly haunted by a fear that they would fail if the truth of their memories returned. “Axl and I wish to have again the happy moments we shared together. To be robbed of them is as if a thief came in the night and took what’s most precious from us.” They seem to know that they will meet the boatman again.
Their journey becomes entangled with that of Wistan and the boy and a quest to slay a dragon – the possible source of the collective amnesia. But the book asks – are some things better off forgotten?
Can we really just forgive and forget? ‘who knows what will come when quick-tongued men make ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest’. A look around the world about us shows this statement to be still alive and well.
The Buried Giant is a fascinating, if detached, novel about love and memory. There are moments where the book gets a bit too Lord of the Rings and rather silly, and I’m sure many people will see Tolkein and Shakespeare here and there but I was also reminded on a number of occasions of Jose Saramago and his particular storytelling style – often involved yet totally separate from the story. The Idea of collective memory loss, was one also explored recently in a similar way by Howard Jocobson’s J. Here, though, it is the Saxon’s who are forgetful of the terrible acts of slaughter that had enabled King Arthur to ‘unite’ the country. We know from our recent past that globally there are many nations that have buried dark memories and often with good reason, but it’s also clear how close to the surface things can remain and how quickly friends and neighbours can become murderous enemies.
It’s a book I’ve thought about a lot since finishing it.
“The giant, once buried, now stirs. When soon he rises, as surely he will, the friendly bonds between us will proves as knots young girls make with the stems of small flowers”