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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Just a thought …… about Harper Lee’s Maycomb, Alabama and other related settings….

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Middle Earth, Narnia, and Wessex are all examples of exotic, or parallel-world settings created by novelists to base their stories in.  Novelists have always created these imaginary worlds for their own purposes.  Middle Earth is the fictional universe created by Tolkien for his best loved works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  C.S. Lewis goes to great rounds to create another fictional realm for his seven Narnia books which make up his  Chronicles of Narnia.  Thomas Hardy’s Wessex Novels are situated in a ‘partly real, partly dream country’.

Being a Harper Lee fan I’ve been awaiting Go Set  a Watchman with eager anticipation since the old PR machine kicked into gear earlier in the year.  For the purposes of this blog, however, I just want to focus for a little while on the setting of both novels, and novels in general, and it is clear to me that the real life Monroeville, Alabama of her youth becomes the fictional Maycomb, Alabama of her novels.  Lee sets her novels here for a reason: she deliberately selects her setting, and in effect the fictional Maycomb becomes another Narnia or Middle Earth – a microcosm of all that is good and bad in 1930’s America.  She tells us that one went to Maycomb, ‘to have his teeth pulled, his wagon fixed, his heart listened to, his money deposited, his soul saved, his mules vetted’.  She describes it as an isolated place, in effect it is an Everyplace – the town, ‘had remained the same for a hundred years, an island in a patchwork sea of cotton fields and timber land’.  It is, in effect, a remote backwater bypassed by progress, the perfect playground of her youth, and the perfect cauldron for change.

In Go Set a Watchman she says that Maycomb County is, ‘a wilderness dotted with tiny settlements’, it is, ‘so cut off from the rest of the nation that some of its citizens, unaware of the South’s political predilection over the past ninety years, still voted Republican.’  It is so remote, ‘no trains went there’.  In fact Maycomb Junction, ‘a courtesy title’, was located in Abbott County twenty miles away!  However, she tells us that the, ‘bus service was erratic and seemed to go nowhere, but the Federal Government  had forced a highway or two through the swamps, thus giving the citizens an opportunity for free egress.’  However, Lee tells us that few took advantage of this opportunity!  Then in one of those Harper Lee epiphany moments, one of those lightening bolts she releases now and then, she perceptively describes her hometown as a place where, ‘If you did not want much, there was plenty.’

In To Kill a Mockingbird she continues in the same rich vein.  Maycomb is, ‘a tired old town’. People moved slowly, ‘they ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything’.  She tells us that, ‘There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County’, a scenario somewhat reminiscent of modern day Greece!

The setting of George Eliot’s novel, Silas Marner,  has many echoes of Maycomb in Eliot’s fictional depiction of Raveloe.  Eliot tells us that it, ‘was a village where many of the old echoes lingered, undrowned by new voices.’  She further describes it as being, ‘Not …. one of those barren parishes lying on the outskirts of civilization — inhabited by meagre sheep and thinly-scattered shepherds: on the contrary, it lay in the rich central plain of what we are pleased to call Merry England’.  However, like Maycomb it was off the beaten track,  ‘it was nestled in a snug well-wooded hollow, quite an hour’s journey on horseback from any turnpike, where it was never reached by the vibrations of the coach-horn, or of public opinion’.   Much of this abundance is of course meant to contrast with Silas Marner’s previous place of residence in Lantern Yard.  Whereas Lantern Yard had been austere, white-walled, and filled with serious and devout Puritans, Raveloe is a place of lazy plenty, pints at the local tavern, and carefree religion on Sundays.  Chapter One declared it to be a place where bad farmers are rewarded for bad farming!

This description of Raveloe also holds great echoes with The Village as depicted in Jim Crace’s  latest (and last?) novel, Harvest.  The narrator, Walter Thirsk  tells us that, ‘these fields are far from anywhere, two days by post-horse, three days by chariot, before you find a market square.’  Harvest  dramatises one of the great under-told narratives of English history: the forced enclosure of open fields and common land from the late medieval era on, whereby subsistence agriculture was replaced by profitable wool production, and the peasant farmers dispossessed and displaced. “The sheaf is giving way to sheep”, as Crace puts it here, and an immemorial connection between people and their local environment is being broken – their world is crumbling around them.  Great changes are coming and, as everyone knows by now, the only people who welcome change are babies with wet nappies!

Brian Friel’s use of Ballybeg (small town) as the setting for many of his plays and short stories is also similar in vein to these others.  In Philadelphia Here I Come, Gar Public tells us that Ballybeg is, ‘a bloody quagmire, a backwater, a dead-end’.  Friel, like Lee, and Eliot and Crace is deceptive because he is dealing with familiar things and familiar characters – shopkeepers, housekeepers, and parish priests – a very familiar rural Ireland fixed in its own time.  Friel’s use of the alter ego – Public Gar and Private Gar – allows us the opportunity to see behind the superficiality of so much of this world of small-town life.

In many ways Friel’s major theme is the failure of people to communicate with each other on an intimate level.  In this play especially we are introduced to the typically Irish practice of verbal non-communication!  He, like Harper Lee, George Eliot, and Jim Crace, forces us to examine the nature of society.  In Ireland our society in the 40’s and 50’s was dominated by the church, the politician and the schoolmaster.  Ultimately the world that Gar is leaving has failed him and his generation.  But Friel is too subtle to allow us to imagine that the world Gar is about to enter in Philadelphia will be any better.

These meandering rambles are an attempt to place myself at the beginning of a work of fiction, to stand for a moment in the author’s shoes, so to speak, and see the world from their point of view.  From my limited reading it seems to me that many authors deliberately choose a world untrodden, less travelled as the setting for their novel.  I have mentioned some here in this piece but I’m sure this is just the tip of the iceberg and you will be able to reference many examples from your own reading.  Ideally the setting is always remote, secluded, off the map or often off the mainland, cut off from change and advancement.  This microcosm is then filled with characters and fictional dilemmas, action and inaction.  I have always been truly fascinated and overawed by each author’s unique ability and ingenuity in  creating and  imagining these hidden places and thus allowing us the privilege of entering the world of their texts.

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