The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

My mother once told me you only ever find out what someone is really like when they come into money unexpectedly. I guess mum’s point was that a sudden windfall shines a spotlight on whether a person is generous by nature or only interested in number one. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as circumstances have shown first an aunt and then my cousin to fall firmly in the latter camp.

To be fair, my cousin she did eventually make a token gesture towards putting things right. But our relationship is broken. She’s mad at me for calling out her behaviour and I’ve seen her in a whole new light; she’s gone down a lot in my estimation.

So…let’s imagine there was something that could wipe my memory clean of the whole sorry debacle. Would it be better to erase it and go back to believing my cousin was fair-minded and generous, which I was happy believing, or is it better to know her true character, so I’m more wary of her in future?

In other words, is it better to forget or to remember? This same question is at the heart of Ishiguro’s novel The Buried Giant.

Ancient Britain.  The land is enveloped by a strange mist and its inhabitants by strangely foggy memories: “…the past…had somehow faded”. Two Britons, an elderly couple called Axl and Beatrice, decide to leave their community and set out on a journey across the country, across “miles of desolate, uncultivated land”, in the hope of finding the son they can barely remember.

A memory-suppressing mist? A seemingly impossible quest? Yes, we’re in the realm of myth and fairy tale. So expect monsters and supernatural beings: a mysterious ferryman, a giant, a dragon. There’s a knight (Sir Gawain, the nephew of the legendary King Arthur) and a warrior (a Saxon called Wistan).

At the same time, we’re given an historical reference point.  The narrator reminds us the Romans once ruled here and built roads and houses (although their villas are now falling into ruin and their famous roads “fading into wilderness”). The world Ishiguro creates is a strange, liminal space suspended between past and present, history and legend, novel and fable. A space akin to memory, when you come to think about it, for isn’t memory an uncertain bridge between past and present, fact and fiction?

Half-way through the story, a friar asks Beatrice, “Yet are you so certain…you wish to be free of this mist? Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?” Beatrice has no doubts about wanting to remember her life with Axl, even though that will mean remembering bad moments as well as good, “For isn’t this the life we’ve shared?” As the novel progresses, though, her certainty falters. “If the mist starts to clear…do you ever fear what will be revealed to us?”

Beatrice’s personal dilemma is given a political dimension through the characters of Gawain and Wistan. Gawain sees the mist as a force for good, a means of establishing “eternal peace” where everyone can “rest in forgetfulness”. Wistan, on the other hand, believes that “old horrors” should be remembered and avenged. “How can…a peace hold for ever built on slaughter and magician’s trickery?”

And there it is: the hard centre at the heart of the fable and a very topical one. In Britain we’re still grappling with the fallout from Empire and colonial rule, the slave trade, the ‘troubles’ in Ireland. Not that Britain is unique in that regard.  Throughout the world there are places, names that resonate with atrocities they’ve witnessed: Rwanda, Srebenica, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Auschwitz and Belsen…and on and on throughout history, a litany of man’s inhumanity to man.  When the killing stops how do we move on, ensure wounds heal rather than fester, how do we learn to live together again? Is it through forgiveness or punishment, mercy or justice, wiping clean the slate or keeping a strict account?

Is it better to forget or to remember?

Ishiguro’s subtle, beautiful tale doesn’t provide any neat answers (how could it?) but you might find it stays with you long after you’ve finished the final sentence.

Rating: 4* (one of the best books I’ve read this year)

I love Ishiguro’s work; it’s so diverse that it’s impossible to pigeon-hole him into any particular genre. You might also want to try An Artist of the Floating World (1985 Whitbread prize winner), The Remains of Day (1989 Booker Prize winner) and Never Let Me Go (which made the Booker shortlist in 2005)I’ve reviewed two of them in earlier blog posts (click on the links).

Ishiguro was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017 and was also knighted for services to literature in 2018. Arise, Sir Kazuo!

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