The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: A Review

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Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent elevation as Nobel Laureate will surely prompt avid readers to explore his repertoire further. They could do worse than lose themselves in this offering from 2015.  The novel took me back to my undergraduate days in UCC in the 1970’s studying classics like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf.  Ishiguro’s tale sets out to be a classic Arthurian fable depicting Sir Gawain himself, and others on various quests. Ishiguro exploits the avalanche of recent interest in this genre as seen in Peter Jackson’s cinematic telling of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga. While the novel may not lend itself to a film blockbuster, it does have all the attributes for one of those all-consuming RPG’s (an acronym I’ve just newly acquired!) in which you work your way through various adventures and levels and perils on your journey to eventually achieving your Holy Grail.

The novel is set at a certain indistinct time after the death of the legendary Arthur.  Britons and Saxons enjoy a fragile peace: the first tentative steps being taken to assimilate both opposing forces in villages and communities throughout the realm.  However, we soon learn that this peace is maintained only because each community is afflicted by a collective loss of memory surrounding their horrendous war-torn past.  The she-dragon Querig is said to be responsible for this collective amnesia by the spreading of a mysterious mist which envelops the countryside and the hamlets.  Indeed, the novel explores the rather vexed issue of memory, and race memory in particular, in maintaining peace in a fractured – and fractious – post-war political landscape.  This idea, of memory and its loss, is dealt with by Ishiguro on two fronts – the geopolitical and the personal.

The novel has a number of narrators, principally Axl and Beatrice – but others including Sir Gawain, Sir Wistan and the various boatmen also provide necessary insights, observations and reveries as the story unfolds.  The early chapters introduce us to Axl and Beatrice, his princess.  They are Britons who live in an underground, warren-like community, surrounded by monsters and ogres and never-ending mists blowing in from the mountains and fens.  They live ‘on the edge of a vast bog’, where ‘the past was rarely discussed’ because ‘it had faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes’.  However, they are being increasingly marginalised by their elders in the Great Chamber and eventually decide to leave to seek out their son who has left for some forgotten reason.  Thus begins the great adventure.

Early in their journey, they come upon a mysterious boatman. Their conversation with him lays the foundation for their fears that restored memory will bring disaster and a possible end to their solid, loving relationship.

We meet Sir Gawain who has been given a quest by Arthur to slay the she-dragon Querig.  He has spent his life wandering the hills getting to know her ways and her guile, so much so, that he eventually becomes her protector.  He is mocked by the women for his inactivity in fulfilling his quest, and we find him wandering the foothills on his trusted warhorse Horace, a rather pathetic figure of ridicule – a forlorn relic of a chivalrous past.

We also encounter the warrior, Wistan, and his young protégé Edwin, who it is feared has been affected by a dragon bite.   We learn that Wistan has been sent by his Saxon king in the eastern fens, to seek out Querig and slay her. The motivation behind this seems to be that once Querig has been slain and the people’s memory fully restored, the long-suppressed divisions and hatreds will resurface to aid the king in his quest to gain Saxon control over the kingdom.

Axl and Beatrice continue their journey, accompanied by Sir Gawain and the young boy Edwin.  They detour to visit the wise Father Jonus who lives in a monastery in the mountains, on the pretext of receiving a cure for Beatrice’s mysterious ailment.   The monastery, once a Saxon citadel, holds further dangers for the party as they are forced to escape through secret passages to freedom.  They continue relentlessly upward to the Giant’s Cairn, where Querig reputedly has her lair.  Once Sir Gawain and Querig have been slain by Sir Wistan, Beatrice and Axl are made aware of the tragic consequences which will follow: memory will soon be fully restored and the dogs of war loosed again, with devastating consequences. Once again Britons will be set upon by their Saxon neighbours, ushering in another period of war and unrest, the fragile peace put in place by King Arthur shattered forever.

Axl and Beatrice make their way from the dragon’s former lair and again meet another boatman. Beatrice reveals – her memory now restored – that in fact, their son is dead and is buried on a nearby offshore island.  They undergo the dreaded solitary test administered by the boatman and the novel ends in sadness, as Axl is left on the shore, while the boatman ferries the ever-weakening Beatrice to the mysterious island.

In this novel Ishiguro provides us with a  thinly veiled modern allegory – his thesis seems to be that a collective loss of memory is necessary in the various trouble spots around the world where untold savagery and genocide have been unleashed if reconciliation is to take place.  We can only imagine the difficulties that daily face communities which were once suffused with hatred and division.  The situation in Northern Ireland obviously springs to mind. We see regularly on our televisions and newspapers the efforts made to normalise peace in these communities after almost a quarter of a century of atrocity, a process which requires a near Orwellian stretching of credibility on our behalf.  In fact, we may wonder has Ishiguro’s mist been replaced there with the modern version – sterling, euro and dollar?  We may also remember other recent trouble-spots such as Israel/Palestine, South Africa, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Syria and question: how can normality be restored, how can society pick up the pieces again? Can Humpty Dumpty ever be put back together again?

As well as the geopolitical implications Ishiguro applies the same thesis to the more private area of marital love.  The touching tenderness and faithfulness exhibited by Axl and Beatrice belie the difficulties they have had to face in their long lives together. This has included a period of infidelity by Axl which has been glossed over, and also, the death of their only son.  Surely, this mysterious yet fortuitous amnesia has been a Godsend to them in maintaining their closeness and their touching intimacy. Surely their relationship would not have otherwise endured but for the benign balm of amnesia.

Consider then the gargantuan achievement of Ishiguro in The Buried Giant: it is a masterpiece about characters who all suffer from various degrees of memory loss, and yet we as readers are able to piece the story together, to read between the lines….  It is, however, an allegory in wishful thinking.  In reality, there are no quick fixes to help us cope with our post-traumatic stresses. We cannot rely on the temporary balm of forgetfulness. If anything, in our world we are left to deal with generation after generation of bequeathed toxic memory.  Atrocity on the world stage or infidelity on a personal relationship level are not so easily forgotten, nor forgiven.

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