I read no articles or advanced reviews, so when the beautifully designed, author-signed first edition arrived at my local independent bookstore, I had no idea what to expect; beyond, that is, the unavoidable buzz: how Kazuo Ishiguro ventures into the world of fantasy with his latest novel, The Buried Giant.
The oddness of Ishiguro’s story space, spare to an extreme, is what lived with me most, chapter to chapter. Having read the book through, one dilemma rose above all others: how can, or should, denial and memory be addressed in fiction? This is not a new issue for Ishiguro. He has tackled it in a variety of ways in previous works. While crafting The Buried Giant, though, here’s one question I imagine Ishiguro asking: is it possible to portray a concrete, specific, real-feeling world, when that world’s past has been stripped away? Under such circumstances, should an author even try?
Axl and Beatrice are a loving elderly couple that the narrative follows as they travel to their nearly forgotten son’s village. Seeing life from their vantage point makes visceral what it would be like if there was less. The kind of less that a land full of ravaged personal and collective memory would produce. Theirs is a narrow world, deprived of the richness that broader knowledge of it would provide. It is the couple’s restricted yet intimate perspective that has this story focused not only on how forgotten history effects societies, but on the repercussions of the lost memory of lovers, too.
Axl and Beatrice meet a boatman early in their journey, whose job it is to evaluate a couple’s love. Only if their love is true will they be ferried to, and allowed to wander together on, the island on the other shore. Beatrice echoes the worry of a woman who has been separated from her husband by such a boatman. “How will you and your husband prove your love for each other when you can’t remember the past you’ve shared?” Axl responds to Beatrice’s concern with the following: “How can our love wither? Isn’t it stronger now than when we were foolish young lovers?” “But Axl,” Beatrice replies. “We can’t even remember those days. Or any of the years between. We don’t remember our fierce quarrels or the small moments we enjoyed and treasured. We don’t remember our son or why he’s away from us. […] I’m wondering if without our memories, there’s nothing for it but for our love to fade and die.”
Encounters along their journey beg the question: how ought one cope, personally and as members of society, when memory or good information is not available? How would it be if only present circumstances and our senses, our emotional intelligence, were to guide us? If tools which, though often neglected, are as valuable but also as fallible as memory and historical record? But also, how do revelations of the past change our relationships, to our neighbors, strangers or even those we care for most?
I have struggled with recall and memory problems since childhood. I am all-too familiar with how fragile memory is, how serious the repercussions of its loss or perturbation can be. So, perhaps I am in a position to empathize with the characters and world of The Buried Giant better than many readers. For those who have never witnessed memory loss in a loved one, or those who choose desperately to deny such a terrible fate could ever befall them, the confined space into which Ishiguro places the reader here may simply be too difficult to inhabit.
One reviewer of The Buried Giant, who struggled to compare this book to certain types of fantasy, complains of a frustrating lack of detailed world-building. Implied seems to be that a story set in post-Arthurian England, with Britons, Saxons, a warrior and an armored knight, should have more swordplay and more appearances by fiercer beasts. For me, it is Ishiguro’s use of these fantasy elements, the subversion of expectation in his just-barely-there portrayal of them, which contributes to the appropriate level of difficulty coming to terms with a world so long wracked by memory-robbing fog. Looking for Tolkien in such a world will obviously leave readers feeling bereft, and missing the point. The myopic state of affairs in The Buried Giant, though claustrophobic, is an appropriate world-building and stylistic choice, as it matches the mental space imposed upon the characters in that world.
Balancing memory, biased history and continuity with forgetting, denial and a clean slate, is a challenge each generation must come to terms with, as the torch gets passed from teacher to student, aunt to niece, author to reader, as we weigh the burden of terrible truths, prejudice and hunger for revenge, with the need for unspoiled eyes and thought processes, untarnished good will and welcoming of the unfamiliar. Each character in The Buried Giant, no matter where he or she stands on the spectrum of balancing this equation, understands that uncovering the past will bring painful memories along with any pleasant ones, that it will likely bring an end to peace in their land. But they recognize, too, that the promise of knowledge, of living with history, however painful, is that of participating in a far less limited and vastly more colorful world.
The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro, Alfred A. Knopf, NYC, 2015.