Thursday, April 30, 2015

Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant’ asks whether it's better to “forget” the past or to turn and face it

In The Buried Giant, his first novel in ten years, Kazuo Ishiguro poses the question: is it better to forget the past or turn and face it? The question applies to individual people, tribes, clans, races and nations.

The Buried Giant is set in post-Arthurian Briton just after a war between the Britons and the Saxons. A great mist (as one of the characters calls it) has settled over the land, erasing memories of the past, even of events that occurred a day or two before.

Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple, have a vague recollection of having had a son although neither of them can remember much about him or why he left their village and went to live in another one. They set out on
foot to find him. Surely, they believe, he will be waiting anxiously to greet them.

Thus begins a quest filled with ogres, strange beasts, warriors, knights (including an elderly Sir Gawain in rusty armor), nefarious monks and holy men, as well as a Charon-like boatman who ferries people across the water. He rarely allows a couple to go together. He asks each separately: tell me the happiest memory you have, the most painful one. Only if they recall the same memories are they ferried across together. Otherwise, one must stand on the shore and watch the other disappear over the waves. But what if neither husband nor wife has any memories at all?

The elderly couple ponder what has caused this forgetfulness. A character asks, “Is it shame makes their memories so weak or simply fear?” Another thought “it might be God himself had forgotten much from our pasts, events far distant, events of the same day. And if a thing is not in God’s mind, then what chance of it remaining in those of mortal men?”

Along the way, they learn that the “mist” is actually the breath of a she-dragon, Querig.

They continue on to a monastery, seeking a wise man’s counsel, and learn that the monks are actually protecting the she-dragon. It is suggested that the monks do not want past memories recovered: rather, man’s focus should be on the heavenly future. The wise man tells them that the monks are now divided on the issue:

…[E]ven now they argue in great passion about how we are to continue. The abbot will insist we carry on as always. Others of our view will say it’s time to stop. That no forgiveness awaits us at the end of this path. That we must uncover what’s been hidden and face the past.

He 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?”

“It may be so 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?”

Axl understands that, if memories return, there will be mixed consequences. Saxons and Britons may now remember all their old grievances: “Who knows what old hatreds will loosen across the land now?” And Wistan, a warrior they have met, agrees, “The giant, once well buried, now stirs.”

On the other hand, Axl asks Beatrice if she is glad of the mist’s fading.

“It may bring horrors to this land. Yet for us it fades just in time.”

“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.”

The ideas Ishiguro explores are interesting, especially in a time of denial of past genocides, atrocities, enslavement, and other horrors. Unfortunately, his execution is sometimes less interesting. As James Wood wrote in The New York Times (3/23/15):

“The Buried Giant” has far too much dialogue like this, more Monty Python than William Golding: “Your news overwhelms us, Sir Gawain. …But first tell us of this beast you speak of. What is its nature and does it threaten us even as we stand here?”

It is hard to imagine a Quest filled with dragons, ogres, pixies and knights that is relentlessly flat and often plodding. Ishiguro has done just that. The novel moves slowly and requires patience, patience that does not always seem sufficiently rewarded.

Kazuo Ishiguro has received four Man Booker Prize nominations. He won the award in 1989 for The Remains of the Day.

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