I have found that truly memorable books have something in common: they make you think. As Science Fiction author Neil Gaiman says of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2015 novel The Buried Giant, it does “what important books do: it remains in the mind long after it has been read, refusing to leave”. The Buried Giant is not only memorable, it is also about memory – a quite stunning depiction of memory, love and loss, very precisely observed, and I recommend it highly. It really makes you think; If you cannot remember anything other than the current moment in your relationship, is your love real? If peace is based on collective amnesia, can it last? Is it right for governments to wipe out history, to remove memories of the past, or to repress unpleasant parts of history in order to preserve peace and stability? The important questions that Ishiguro raises in this novel makes it worth analysing and considering at length.
A comparable work
In 1984, Dutch author Hendrik Jan Marsman (14 January 1937 – 29 October 2012), writing under the pen-name J. Bernlef, published Out of Mind (original Dutch title, Hersenschimmen). Written from the first person perspective of “Maarten”, it is a frightening journey into dementia: “Maarten’s mind leaks away, inch by inch, and finally dissolves. Bernlef’s account of this terrible journey is most poignant, quite unflinching.” High praise from Harold Pinter, and deservedly so. It is frightening to read. As Marten’s mind goes, so do his words. The book starts normally, with normal descriptions in full sentences of his wife, his doctor, the treatments, his house. As the disease progresses, he loses his words, he forgets, there are no more “streams” of consciousness, just moments, linked, and then, not linked at all. “I” becomes “you”, then “he”:
“Am alone now. How silent it is. Where has the world gone? Gently shake this head. Shake everything out of it. (Maybe one will then become again who one was before?) …(Atmospheric changes? Vanished thoughts? Spring coming back, perhaps?) (p.113)
Sentences become phrases and unanswered questions. Then on the last page:
“…glass you can see through…outside…into the words and the spring that is almost beginning…she says…she whispers…the spring which is about to begin…” (p. 130).
Quarter-filled, the rest of the last page remains empty.
By reducing the number, length and complexity of sentences and words, Bernlef depicts the thoughts of a man who is both losing his mind and losing his ability to express himself. He forgets his life, and he forgets his language.
What most people don’t think about often is that what you read is merely the thoughts of someone. Sometimes the thoughts of a ghost writer, or a speech writer, a PR person, or a scribe, but even so, it is the thoughts of a person. From the head, to the keyboard or the pen; the fewer the thoughts, the fewer the words.
Genre, structure and plot
The Buried Giant is similar to Berlef’s tale, in the sense that it features old people and their lives and loves, but in reverse. “Maarten” starts to forget. “Axl” and “Beatrice”, the old couple in The Buried Giant, start to remember.
In the Buried Giant, the “giant” in the book title is a dragon who, cursed by Merlin, the wizard of Arthurian legend, grows old in a cave up a mountain and is said to breathe out a fog that makes entire countries’ peoples forget. It may also mean a huge buried pile of memories and history. Or the ginormous heap of roots of a tree that represents history and knowledge of the past. I prefer the simple explanation: the giant is the dragon (Occam’s Razor, I think).
The novel is a fairly typically structured folkloristic quest tale (right down to its “Medieval” English), but with a modern twist. Using a simple chivalric tale of a dragon, magical creatures, knights, an orphaned boy, and an old married couple on a journey, Ishiguro raises concern for what happens when a nation’s people forget their past – and not because they all have dementia – and then regain their memories. He also raises the question of whether one can love someone completely if you not know them completely. Can true love be based on ignorance?
Plot outline and style
The story starts with simple, short declamatory sentences, a simple setting, people speaking briefly and plainly to each other. The old couple, Axl and Beatrice, live in a village where people have very short memories. A child goes missing, and initially the villagers panic and look for her, but soon they are distracted by some menial event and forget about her. Their lives seems to go from day to day with nothing to think about other than food and shelter, but they are relatively peacefully as well. Occasionally they want to attack someone from superstition or fear, but they move on to something else soon enough.
But Axl has a nagging memory somewhere, like something emerging from a fog. He and Beatrice have some idea that they have a son somewhere not too far away, who is a respected man and who loves them, and they decide to go to him. And as they move further away from the foggy, misty village, so their memories come back, and so their language becomes more complex. After many pages of unidentified people and places, they reach another village, where, unexpectedly, Ishiguro introduces a man whose name they know, “Ivor”, who Beatrice knows from before. Ivor’s mind seems to work much better than those of the villagers. He finds their permanent state of distraction irritating, and talks to them as if they are disobedient children.
“How can it be they forget even this, and so soon after watching the warrior leave with two of their own cousins to do what none of them had the courage for? Is it shame makes their memories so weak or simply fear?” (p.63)
Slowly also, Axl stars remembering who he was, and who his wife was when they were young. The clues stack up, like in a detective novel. They meet two knights, “Sir Gawain” (of the fictional Round Table) and “Master Wistan”, a formidable fighter. They save the life of a boy, “Edwin”, who has a talent for hearing the dragon (I assume) calling to him like his mother, and who can lead the group to the dragon.
As the party reaches the dragon’s lair – one knight intending to kill it, another intending to defend it to the death – en route fighting off evil pixies, ogres, demented widows and strange boatmen, more is revealed about who they are and what their quests are.
Sub-theme and theme: a chivalric question, love and amnesia
However, the folkloristic elements are merely the tools with which Ishiguro makes his point. Most important is his depiction of the nature of love.
Beatrice and Axl are devoted to each other. He calls her “princess” and, never walking far from him, she would ask, like a litany, “Are you still there, Axl?” And he would say, “Still here, princess”. She is old and ill, yet, both of them want to find their son, and through all the dangers and attacks, by both Britons and Saxons, they cling together, literally and figuratively.
A boatman who may be Charon
They come across an old woman who tells them that they must not trust the boatman who will row them off-shore to the island where their son will be. If the boatman quizzes them separately and detects even a smidgen of difference in their shared memories, he will take one across, and leave the other behind forever. Those people who remember nothing, whose memories are still foggy, get across with no problems. They remember neither the good nor the bad and cannot disagree since there is nothing to disagree about. The ones who remember, remember that they love each other, but also that perhaps they once hated each other too.
Axl and Beatrice are as close as two people can get. In the fog of their village, in their humble little hovel, they sleep in each other’s arms and know only the affection that comes from blissful ignorance. Their love is habitual and from their gut, and not based on intellect or thought. They love each other but do not know why. When finally, they are faced with the boatman and his interrogations, they remember what they wanted to forget in the first place, and that, like all couples, through time and everywhere, they disagreed on some fundamental thing and hated each other for it. And like all couples, they remember this instance differently.
“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 so, 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?” (p.172)
The question is, what makes the people of this country so forgetful? Surely the dragon is not the cause of the mass amnesia? It is old, hardly alive, and not such a big dragon. One would think that the closer the travellers get to the dragon’s amnesiac breath, the more they will forget, to the extent of forgetting why they are even there. Not so. They remember everything in the finest detail, particularly their original quests.
Mass amnesia, courtesy of government
It turns out that, yes, the people’s fear of old enemies and blissful state of ignorance did help the amnesia to take hold, and for many years the dragon kept the people befuddled by its foggy breath. In fact, it was Merlin who carried out King Arthur’s order to enchant the dragon to make the people forget.
Sound familiar? Remember Amnesia by Peter Carey, and especially, The Fat Years, by Chan Koonchung? In the latter novel, Koonchung makes the point that it was the choice of the people of China to forget chunks of their past, as the character “He Dongsheng” says: “If the Chinese people themselves had not wanted to forget, we could not have forced them to do so. The Chinese people voluntarily gave themselves a large dose of amnesia medicine.” (p. 287) Koonchung’s novel is perilously close to being non-fiction. It is satire, but too close to the truth to be simply amusing and entertaining. Rather, it raises uncomfortable questions.
The theme is similar in The Buried Giant: the people wanted to forget and the king took advantage of this, suppressing war by making people forget that they have reason to fight and reason to hate each other. It has been said that the government of China wants at all costs to preserve peace and stability, even though the means of achieving that includes eradicating chunks of history, or other means that are undemocratic. Likewise, in this mythical England, King Arthur believes that the end justifies the means:
“Without this she-dragon’s breath, would peace ever have come? Look how we live now, sir! Old foes as cousins, village by village. Master Wistan, you fall silent before this sight. I ask again. Will you not leave this poor creature to live out her life? Her breath isn’t what it was, yet holds the magic even now. Think sir, once that breath should cease, what might be awoken across this land after all these years!” (p.311)
Ishiguro seems to draw a parallel between this benighted England of old and the England of today, with its extremes of opinion, education and class, and it is indeed a dark and depressing view, and leaves one to wonder – what are the people of Britain forgetting?
Love and memories
Finally, the couple meets the boatman who will either take them way from each other forever or take them together to their son. The boatman, who is also the first person narrator, waits gently, kindly and patiently for the couple to let go. Like death, he is impartial and cannot be negotiated with. The boatman, or boatmen, who have caused such agony of separation of loved ones, may in fact be Charon, of Greek mythology. Charon or Kharon (/ˈkɛərɒn/ or /ˈkɛərən/; Greek Χάρων) is the ferryman of Hades who carries souls of the newly deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron, that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead.
If so, the island off the shore where Axl and Beatrice believe their son is, is the world of the dead, the boatman is the ferryman of Hades, and when they cross, they have died too. I particularly think that because the point is emphasized that only one person can ever cross with the boatman in his boat. Someone can wait on shore for the boat to come back, but only one crosses at a time. I think the interview and the trip with the boatman is a metaphor for people remembering only what they want to and what they value, in their final moments. And that at the moment of death, you remember everything, but choose to forget, and forgive.
When Axl realizes – with growing desperation and horror, shared by the reader! – what they have to face, he says:
“I was wondering, princess. Could it be our love would never have grown so strong down the years had the mist not robbed us the way it did? Perhaps it allowed old wounds to heal.” (p.344)
He suspects they will not make it and does not want her to remember. By the end of the book, this important question is answered. Do Axl and Beatrice get separated? Will the boatman come back for Axl? Why does Axl not go back and wait on the shore?
I am not sure. But those last few pages of Axl and Beatrice finally understanding what they are to each other are intensely moving, riveting, and suspenseful. How does it end? Read it yourself, and find out. When Axl calls Beatrice “my one true love” I had to take out a hanky and blow my nose.
At the end, the language has come full circle, from simple, to complex and colourful, to simple again. But this time, the simplicity is forceful, focused and penetrating with every carefully chosen, memorable word.
This novel is masterful and it will be enjoyed and loved by many readers. I loved Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day which really made me care about the characters and transported me to a different time, even though it made me very, very sad. I felt the same about this book. While it is a fable there is very little fantastical and lighthearted about it (unlike for instance The 100-Year Old Man or The Table of Less Valued Knights). The killings are gruesome and the escapes frightening. The sense of impending doom and growing awareness of something cataclysmic yet personal that is about to be revealed create a high level of tension. It is a quite stunning depiction of memory, love and loss, very precisely observed, and I recommend it highly. It does what really important books do: it remains in the mind long after it has been read, refusing to leave. I’m happy to have it stay in my mind and on my bookshelf.
About the author
Kazuo Ishiguro OBE, FRSA, FRSL (Japanese: カズオ・イシグロ or 石黒 一雄; born 8 November 1954) is a British novelist, screenwriter and short story writer. He was born in Nagasaki, Japan; his family moved to England in 1960 when he was five. Ishiguro obtained his bachelor’s degree from the University of Kent in 1978 and his Master’s from the University of East Anglia’s creative-writing course in 1980. Ishiguro is one of the most celebrated contemporary fiction authors in the English-speaking world, having received four Man Booker Prize nominations, and winning the 1989 award for his novel The Remains of the Day. In 2008, The Times ranked Ishiguro 32nd on their list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945″. His seventh novel, The Buried Giant, was published on 3 March 2015 in both the United States and the United Kingdom.