Gosh, what a strange novel. Part historical fiction, part fable, this book feels wilfully enigmatic, its meaning hovering just beyond reach, like a shattered reflection in water. This is only the second of Ishiguro’s novels that I’ve read (the first, some years ago, was Never Let Me Go) and so I’m not sure which elements are typical of his writing and which merely adopted for this book. One thing which the two books have in common, though, is that an apparently simple story turns out to have a much deeper significance. I have a sneaking suspicion that The Buried Giant has several layers, so this post is primarily an attempt to tease out meaning from this dreamlike tale of an ancient British past.
Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple who live in a modest settlement dug out from the hillside. They and their neighbours are Britons, living in an age when the Romans are long gone and an uneasy truce exists with nearby Saxon villages. Life is simple for Axl and Beatrice. They take part in the communal tasks of the settlement, but age has diminished their importance and they make the best of their humble situation, banished to one of the outer rooms in the warren, near the draughty edge of the hill, forbidden a candle on the grounds of their supposedly shaky hands. As far as they can remember, life has always been like this; but they’re equally troubled by the idea that surely things were once different. Didn’t they once have better accommodation? Don’t they have memories of leading their child by the hand? But what happened to that child?
Memories are the point. Like all their neighbours, both Briton and Saxon, Axl and Beatrice linger in a mist of forgetting. They live contentedly because they have no memory of anything being other than how it is. When unusual events happen, it’s only a matter of hours before they lose their sharp edges in the mind and become smoothed into the calm, monotonous procession of normality. They are, in effect, drugged into acquiescence. But what causes this curious mist? The answer will become bound up with their personal quest for remembrance. When a mysterious traveller stops by to speak with Beatrice, she decides that it is time for her and Axl to make a journey to visit their son’s village. Although they can remember little about their son, they are sure that he is waiting for them, and that their welcome will be warm. And so they set out, heading ever eastward, hoping that their journey will make everything clear.
But this is not a Britain you’ll find in any history books. This is a world where myth has bled into reality: a world of ogres and dragons. And, as Axl and Beatrice move eastward, they encounter a series of characters whose quests seem to be bound up with theirs: the Saxon warrior Wistan; the troubled boy Edwin; and the parfit gentil knight Sir Gawain (Arthur’s nephew), now an old man patrolling the forests in his clanking armour, on his loyal steed Horace, sworn to slay the she-dragon Querig. There is an aura of the chivalric legend about much of the story: the kind of medieval morality tale of the hero faced with personifications of various kinds, who help or hinder him on his journey.
Now for some spoilers, so skip this paragraph if you haven’t read the book. What is the story really about? In part, it’s a tale of love and companionship continuing against all the odds, I suppose. Axl and Beatrice want to regain their memories even if that will bring back dark times as well as good: they are determined to embrace the full spectrum of their past, because it has brought them to the present in which they love each other. And yet not all journeys can be undertaken together, as we see in their encounter with the Boatman. This is what ultimately makes the story a tragedy: even the closest of lovers have to face a final parting. And what of the buried giant? On one level, it’s literally a giant whose burial mound serves as the setting for the climactic encounter with Querig. But, as we understand more about Axl’s and Gawain’s past, we see that the buried giant also signifies human nature, suppressed with a great effort of will through Merlin’s magic, and threatening to rip apart peace and harmony as soon as its shackles are broken and it rises up again. In breaking the spell, one risks opening Pandora’s Box and unleashing all the evils of memory upon the world, leading to vengeance, grudges and misery. Is it right to desire such cruel consequences? Or is it better to live half-stupefied by the conviction of a peaceful, unchanging life where everything has always been so? This isn’t just a book about the recovery of personal memory: it’s about the importance (or not) of history; self-awareness; conflict; negotiation.
I still don’t think I understand the book, but on reflection I feel it’s better than I initially thought it was. I liked it, I think. I certainly found it more engaging than some of the reviewers I’ve read, who don’t seem to have been able to lose themselves in its languid mystery. One day I should read it again. It has that same fairy-tale quality as The Alchemist, in sections, and that same troubling quality of having a whole panoply of meanings. It would be interesting to dig out some interviews with Ishiguro about the novel, to see whether he gives away any more of what he intended to convey. What do others think of this? Did you find it charming or infuriating, magical or exasperating?