“Then he took the sword in both hands and raised it—and Gawain’s posture took on an unmistakable grandeur.” – The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro
My son gave me a signed first edition of Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, The Buried Giant, for Christmas. The book has been cast in some marketing circles as a fantasy, with allusions to King Arthur and Beowulf and the like, although the author has said he doesn’t set out to write in one particular genre or another and doesn’t like his books to be labeled as such.
Ishiguro is one of my favorite novelists, so I read every new book of his that comes out.
Never Let Me Go (dystopia/science fiction) and When We Were Orphans (in the tradition of the mystery/detective novel but with a literary twist) are my favorite Ishiguro novels. In fact, Never Let Me Go is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, one of Ishiguro’s more accessible stories. If you want to read Ishiguro, you might start with Never Let me Go, which was made into a movie starring Carey Mulligan. Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (pre World War II) was also brought to the screen with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.
As much as I enjoyed the screen versions of these books, there is something about Ishiguro’s writing that seems to be lost in a movie, at least for me. His novels are like dreams verging on nightmares from which you can’t awaken. Things don’t quite make sense in Ishiguro’s novels – you know this is not “reality” and that something is off, but what? The main character(s) are usually on a quest of one kind or another. They long for something that seems to be just out of reach.
You come to discern that Ishiguro’s characters are operating under some grand delusion. It’s unsettling, because you sense something familiar about the delusion; you begin to recognize that perhaps you operate under the very same delusion.
Especially if you’re of a certain age and you have children who have left the nest as I do, you might find The Buried Giant particularly affecting. Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple who leave their village and set off to find their son, whom they apparently haven’t seen in many years. They can’t remember the circumstances under which he left, or exactly where he lives, just as they can’t remember much of anything about their own pasts.
Axl and Beatrice aren’t unusual, though. No one in their village or anywhere else remembers much about their own past, nor do they seem to want to; a fine mist over the countryside, thought to be the breath of the dragon Querig, is said to be responsible for shrouding both personal and collective memory.
It is somewhere around the year 600 AD, and England is in ruin. Axl and Beatrice want to find their son, and they want to regain their memories. As they wander in search of their son, they meet others on their own quests. Clues and sightings suggest a terrible slaughter between the Saxons and Britons that no one remembers, just as no one recalls the dark secrets that lurk in their personal pasts. Perhaps the mist is in place so Britons and Saxons can live side by side without wanting to exact revenge.
As one reviewer pointed out, don’t we all operate under collective memory loss, or denial, that’s partly deliberate? Over climate change, for example, even though climate scientists have been warning us about it since the seventies? Or the atrocities of war?
Axl and Beatrice become caught up in a scheme to slay the dragon so memories can be recovered, but as Sir Gawain, the knight and nephew of the dead King Arthur, asks Beatrice, “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?”
Just as the Saxons and Britons fought a terrible war, you gradually learn there was upheaval in Axl and Beatrice’s relationship as well. What will happen when this couple, who seem to be so in love, recall their betrayals of each other? And what happened to their son?
Axl and Beatrice meet a boatman who they must rely on to help them cross a river in their journey. He says, “When travellers speak of their most cherished memories, it’s impossible for them to disguise the truth. A couple may claim to be bonded by love, but we boatmen may see instead resentment, anger, even hatred. Or a great barrenness. Sometimes a fear of loneliness and nothing more. Abiding love that has endured the years – that we see only rarely.”
Beatrice replies: “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.”
Ishiguro builds up to a powerful and haunting conclusion. Like all of Ishiguro’s novels, I can’t get this one out of my mind.
There has been some interest in making The Buried Giant into a movie, but there are no definite plans yet.
Here is an excellent 4-minute video of Ishiguro talking about his novels made into movies.
In this interview, Ishiguro talks about how a book can be the raw material for a movie, which becomes something new and powerful in and of itself; how literary genres are breaking down and overlapping in exciting ways; and how he embraces the Leonard Cohen model of artistry and aging in which the artist looks to aging as new material for his/her art.
Have you read The Buried Giant or other novels by Ishiguro? Do you have a favorite? Have you seen the movie versions of Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go?