Memory is a fickle aspect of our lives. Vibrant memories can provide a level of certainty to conceptions of self, but they also hold painful details that sour relationships and cement hatred. Amnesia can erase old resentments and bring enemies together.
Does forgetfulness excise people’s true selves, or does it permit them to eclipse pasts they would rather not remember? Kazuo Ishiguro asks this question in The Buried Giant, his first novel since 2005’s Never Let Me Go. A novelist that defies easy categorization, Ishiguro has leapt from the ever-so-slightly sci-fi boarding school setting of his last book to full-on swords and sorcery in the post-Roman wasteland of an England divided between native Britons and Saxon migrants.
Ogres, pixies, knights, and dragons enter the picture, but similarities to Tolkien are few—this is not a tale of good and evil, nor one riddled with thrilling battles. A frail, elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, set off from their tiny village in hopes of finding their son, who left them after an incident neither protagonist can remember. They can’t recall much, for that matter, nor can anyone else in the land. A fog, believed to emerge from the breath of a mighty she-dragon, has robbed Britain’s inhabitants of their memories. The pair is joined on their journey by an aging knight who served under King Arthur, a Saxon warrior on a cryptic quest, and a peasant boy with a mysterious wound that refuses to heal.
The fog that coats the land also seems to have taken the ability to have normal, fluid conversations away from every character. Axl and Beatrice speak like children to each other, with Beatrice often exhibiting the mental capacity of an infant in her stilted sentences. Axl’s insistence on referring to his wife only as “princess” is grating, and everyone else speaks in a kind of indistinct ye-olde English that’s easy to mock. Ishiguro’s writing of individual sentences and scenes is anything but elegant. There are few, if any, passages worth underlining, and little sensuous texture in this world of rolling hills and forests. The art of the beautifully-written page can’t be found here. The book is more concerned with making a statement when taken in its entirety.
The Buried Giant is strange, somewhat awkward, even aimless, especially in its early chapters. Axl and Beatrice’s trek appears utterly foolish, as neither one remembers where their son lives, his name, or any defining feature about him. But the longer they stick around, a magical sort of sadness grows around them, something that permeates every event the pair bumbles their way into. This is a depressing book, and unrelentingly so—its characters so caught within the mist surrounding them that they lose any knowledge of pleasant times before the forgetting began. A monastery that seems pleasant at first glance holds shockingly gruesome secrets; a trusted soldier’s quest is revealed to be genocidal. Such are the things in store for the reader. Their horrors are left to fester, unexplained and unanalyzed by Ishiguro, who draws his world over a canvas crusted with old bloodstains.
The mist, it is revealed, is the work of man (or a wizard, as it is), an enforced forgetting of a crime so terrible that King Arthur decided that any memory of it would plunge the country back into bloodshed. Should old wounds be reopened in for the sake of truth and reconciliation, or will the consequences be too great? The same question applies to Axl and Beatrice’s long relationship, as they anxiously wonder whether the loss of their memories has strengthened their love into some thing irrational and unbreakable. At the end of the novel, the sadness of the answer is almost unbearable.
The Buried Giant weaves its strands of plot and allegory to a finish that is among the most haunting I’ve ever read. The novel’s weight comes from its power to move and to question, not in its clumsy prose. Love, shielded from pain, is a lie, Ishiguro posits, and the slow, somber march towards emptiness over the last five pages is tremendously affecting. Axl and Beatrice’s constant doubts and ruminations on the nature of their love, once bothersome, evoke an inconsolable melancholy.
As husband and wife trundle along their long path, Beatrice, walking in front, would often call out, “Are you still there, Axl?”
He always is, until he remembers.