Like many others, I was blown away by Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece The Remains of the Day. And now, having read his most recent book The Buried Giant, I rather wonder if his Nobel Prize rests solely on the merits of The Remains of the Day. I should like The Buried Giant more than I do, but I don’t. Not because it’s a fantasy, my favorite genre–Ishiguro uses the fantastical elements lightly, as if he were painting a watercolor with the palest shades possible. As with Never Let Me Go, his so-called science fiction novel, the worldbuilding is practically nonexistent. From what I gather, the minimal worldbuilding is because the way Ishiguro prefers to write novels is that he starts with a big literary theme, and then he finds the set-pieces that will best help him deliver said theme.
In The Buried Giant, the Big Theme is that humanity is caught in a terrible bind–the only way to move beyond the crimes of the past is forgetfulness, and the more vile the crime, the more forgetfulness is necessary–and yet, forgetfulness means that justice can never be done. But on the other hand, the quest for justice always sours into a thirst for vengeance that triggers an unending cycle of violence. This is the kind of bleak thing I like to meditate on all the time, and it’s not like I don’t believe this is true–I do. While I started out critical, and intend to continue being critical, let me first say that Ishiguro wrote a good book. I could not put The Buried Giant down without great effort, and the morning after I started it, when I awoke three hours early from insomnia, I chose to spend the gift of the extra time on finishing the book. Despite the awkward dialogue, wan setting, and artificial style, this is an exceptionally well-crafted, hard-hitting book.
The book is set in the time after the death of King Arthur, and the aftermath of a bloody war between the Saxons and the Britons. The inhabitants of the land have been struck by an odd amnesia, and are unable to remember such things as a fellow villager’s existence, or a child being kidnapped. Axl and Beatrice, are an adorable elderly couple and our protagonists. Axl refers to Beatrice as “princess,” and throughout the book there’s nothing he won’t do for her–he carries her on his back, he rescues her from water pixies, he makes sure she’s always warm, and he’s more anxious about her failing health than she herself is.
Axl and Beatrice manage to recall that they have a son living nearby, and decide to go visit him, but their real quest is to regain their memories. After a run-in with death’s ferryman, they learn that only a couple that is truly and deeply in love can go to heaven together, and they fear that in their current state of amnesia, their love would not pass the test. Along the way, Axl and Beatrice meet and befriend a Saxon warrior named Wistan, and the elderly Sir Gawain. It turns out that the forgetfulness over the land is caused by a spell Merlin laid on the breath of the dragon Querig, which King Arthur himself commanded. The Saxons and Britons had been locked in endless war, and King Arthur made the executive decision that the best thing to do was to kill the Saxon women and children. To ensure that future Saxon generations would not take vengeance, everyone would need to forget what had happened. It worked, mostly, as Saxons and Britons live together peacefully at the start of the book, sometimes even in the same village, but Wistan is inexplicably unaffected by the dragon’s breath, and he remembers perfectly well what Arthur’s armies did. He seeks to slay Querig so that the Saxons will remember what happened, rise up, and repay the Britons in genocide.
So there are two levels at which the book is exploring this question of forgetfulness and justice–the personal, and the political. At the political level, Ishiguro seems about right to me. It’s not hard to find examples of peace made possible only through genocide and the repression of any unpleasant memories. America, for instance, conveniently forgets what happened to Native Americans. I remember reading about manifest destiny in high school, and it was only years later that it occurred to me to wonder–did the Native Americans take this lying down? They couldn’t have, could they? Or consider the case of the Texan textbook that insisted slaves were “workers” and “immigrants,” as opposed to…you know, slaves.
So I agree with Ishiguro, I think he’s put his finger on a very important phenomenon, and yet–I don’t know. When I finished reading it, I was left in a state of overwhelming sadness that it took several hours in the sun to walk off–sadness, and a sense of foulness. And that would be because I so don’t agree with this book at the personal level–at the level on which the story of Axl and Beatrice is told.
After Wistan slays the dragon, Axl and Beatrice regain their memories. It turns out that Beatrice had cheated on Axl with Sir Gawain once, and in retaliation, when their son died of the plague in a nearby village, Axl forbade Beatrice from visiting their son’s grave. When the boatman who ferries the dead to heaven questions them, it’s made clear that their love isn’t up to scratch–in fact, the beautiful state of their love is only possible because the dragon’s breath made Axl forget everything. He would never have gotten over Beatrice’s affair otherwise. Their love was a fraud built on deception, and that’s why I felt smirched–I too, was cheated into believing in it.
Smirched, and outraged, because splitting up Axl and Beatrice for all eternity seems, to me, far too unforgiving. Kings and presidents and nations may never be able to find peace, but why can’t husbands and wives? I don’t believe that peace between individuals is always possible, but neither is it impossible–so why did Ishiguro write this book as if it were? Certainly it is much easier for two individuals to patch up their problems than two nations–we all know this from our lived experiences. Economists even have mathematical models that prove this is true. But by asserting the impossibility of peace on the political and the personal level, the book’s message is too on the nose. “HURRR DID YOU KNOW EVERYTHING IS BAD,” Ishiguro seems to be saying.
Yeah, this is where the Nobel Prize winner crossed into mopey teenager territory. Sure, we’re all going to die, and not only that, we’re all going to die unshriven of the burden of countless collective sins, but even in the grand, ugly scheme of things, there’s still room for a little compassion and grace. Saying that everything is bad, nothing can be done, nothing can be better is the coward’s way out.