Book Reviews

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

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Were you ever so charmed by a story that you would not put the book down? I was surprised to find this book to be a fantasy tale in a land where supernatural beings still existed and civilization was still in its infancy – where Romans had barely left and Britons and Saxons were living in peace after the war undertaken by king Arthur and Merlin.

Much of the story has twists and turns but it is good enough for a child to read it and enjoy it and also for an adult to read it and find hidden gems and pearls of wisdom.

Contrary to the title, the story is not about a giant, it is about an elderly couple whom you end up loving from the start and until the bitter end. Not that the book has a bitter end, far from it, but I was not expecting it.

The time of the story is set around the sixth century AD, when Saxons have arrived in Britain from their Germanic homelands. The legendary King Arthur has died some years ago, and although some residual bad feeling exists between Britons and Saxons, there is an uneasy peace. An elderly couple, Axl and his wife Beatrice, have been troubled for some time about their son, of whom they have only fleeting, misty memories. This partial amnesia is something suffered to some extent by everyone. Axl and Beatrice set off to look for their son, though they know the journey will be long and arduous.

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Along the way, they meet Wistan, a Saxon warrior; Sir Gawain, an elderly knight and nephew of the late King Arthur; and other characters including a boatman who has sinister echoes of Charon in Greek mythology, who rowed dead souls across the rivers Styx and Acheron to Hades on condition that they had a coin for him.

“Boatman, I’ve spoken honestly to you, and I hope it doesn’t cast your earlier judgement of us in doubt. For I suppose there’s some would hear my words and think our love flawed and broken. But God will know the slow tread of an old couple’s love for each other, and understand how black shadows make part of its whole.”

Axl and Beatrice are gentle and loving with each other, he calls her princess all the time and holds her very dear. He carries her to safety on more than one occasion and they wonder whether their continued love is lasting because they are incapable of forming and recalling memories (be it good or bad).

“Yet are you so certain, good mistress, you wish to be free of this mist? Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?”
“It may be for some, father, but not for us. Axl and I wish to have again the happy moments we shared together. To be robbed of them is as if a thief came in the night and took what’s most precious from us.”
“Yet the mist covers all memories, the bad as well as the good. Isn’t that so, mistress?”
“We’ll have the bad ones come back too, even if they make us weep or shake with anger. For isn’t it the life we’ve shared?”

But they long to uncover recollections of shared times and as they travel, memories surface slowly – Axl’s days as a general in the army, Beatrice’s lonely nights waiting for him to return. The last revelation appears in the last pages of the book – about their son which they wish to visit.

It’s not only them who suffer from memory loss. The amnesia of their country folk similarly keeps the peace as it enables past battles to be forgotten. The Saxons live with the Britons and the political interests wish to slay the she-dragon Querig which is the source of the mist, due to a spell put on by Merlin, and re-start the conquests.

Ishiguro’s unspoken question is whether this kind of collective amnesia can be justified, or whether it is more fair for people to face up to the ugly truth of past deeds, even if it means some will set out to exact vengeance.

Man’s crimes against man have been countless throughout history, and have similarly countless parallels in the modern world: Northern Ireland, Japan post-Second World War, the Holocaust, South Africa, Nigeria, the Serbian/Bosnian conflict, Rwanda, Iraq, Syria, Libya; often followed by bloody retribution. Without the fog of amnesia, Ishiguro’s tale shows, individuals inculcate others with their desire for revenge.

BURMA_0178Even when people are aware of their past misdeeds, can they expect forgiveness? In a scene in a monastery, Wistan challenges a monk on the religious belief that prayer and self-flagellation will absolve crimes.

Ishiguro also touches on personal morals; the arbitrary decisions people make about what is acceptable behaviour. Harming people seen as “other” is often viewed as excusable, even when they have previously been friends. And, although the monks shrink from active killing, some are prepared to facilitate slaying by others.

Denial is another form of assuaging the conscience. Though a decent fellow, Gawain is loath to take responsibility for his actions, and is prone to paranoiac outbursts and projection.

But the writer does have some sympathy for those who embark on aggressive action and then realise they have made catastrophic mistakes:

“Imagine … how a shepherd must judge quickly, hearing a sound in the dark, if it heralds danger or the approach of a friend. Much must rest on the ability to make such decisions quickly …”

And of course, such decisions depend on subjective assessment. As Ishiguro shows in the course of this tale, if even happily married couples can hold vehemently differing perceptions of shared memories or objects seen in the distance, how can we hope all to agree on the right course of action in relation to major issues? The buried giant of the title is an allegory for the buried hatchet; the repression of hatreds, resentments and the desire for violent redress.

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