“Who knows what will come when quick-tongued men make ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest?”
This review contains spoilers.
The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel (and by latest, I mean 2015) is refreshingly and unapologetically a Fantasy novel; by which I mean that the fantasy isn’t easily reducible to metaphor, as is the case with much magic realism and “literary” fantasy.
Set in post-Arthurian Britain, it follows Axl and Beatrice, an old couple who set out on a long-delayed journey to visit their son in the next village. This is a greater undertaking than it sounds; for a mist of forgetting lies upon the land, causing mothers to forget children who went missing only a few hours ago, and entire villagers to forget members of their communities who have left. Axl and Beatrice are not, even, one hundred per cent sure that they have a son; they are not sure whether he is married, whether he has children, or even quite where he lives. All they have is a feeling.
Inevitably (for this is a Fantasy story) their quest for personal memory becomes slowly a quest for national memory: to find the source of the mist so that they can remember their lives together and so that others can remember their ties to each other. Along the way, they meet ogres and fiends and monsters and giants and dragons and knights and other strange and mildly disturbing characters.
So there are two obvious traditions on which Ishiguro seems to be drawing: the Arthurian tradition (Axl and Beatrice meet an aged Sir Gawain, with rusted armour and a clapped-out warhorse) and the Tolkienian one. And both of these traditions, of course, are exercises in collective memory: retelling the story of Arthur has always been a nationalistic enterprise, and Tolkien was explicitly trying to create an English mythology, constructed from bits and pieces of Old English and the Homeric legendarium.
My point being that it’s difficult not to read The Buried Giant as a text about mythmaking, about the process of creating collective memories.
It’s a tricky text to write about without reducing it; but it certainly seems to register an ambivalence about the value of memory. There’s a distinction being drawn here, I think, between personal memory and collective memory, which is rather neatly illustrated by one of the novel’s central paradoxes: although it’s written in an archaic, almost stilted, register, one which recalls Middle English Arthurian epics such as Layamon’s Brut and the Alliterative Morte Arthure, both of which are performative texts, texts concerned with public, political life, the core of the novel is a very modern preoccupation with interior lives – more explicitly, the interior lives of two poor, unimportant old people.
With that in mind: the book pulls us in two directions in a way that quite cleverly pulls apart our modern-day focus on individualism. Because we are twenty-first century readers, and because of the way the novel is focused, we care about Axl and Beatrice’s relationship (which is, by the way, gorgeously and hopefully written), we are rooting for them to remember their son and all the events of their lives; but the novel is also very clear that the return of memory to the country will mean war between the Britons and the Saxons who at the moment cohabit peacefully if uneasily. With the mist of forgetting created and upheld by Arthur and later Sir Gawain, the irony of the novel seems to be that the Golden Age of peace supposedly ushered in by King Arthur was in fact a Dark Age; only without Arthur can an Arthurian age be established.
And yet: it is better to remember than forget, and so we, and the characters of the novel, continue our mythmaking.
There’s certainly more to say about The Buried Giant, and I hope to say it; but for now: it is a lovely, powerful book, and I hope you read it.