There is a literal buried giant, its corpse resting under a mound of earth large enough to be a hill, in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. But the real hidden beast of the book’s title is human memory, that fades into the mists of time and takes with it, if we are not careful, our sense of identity and purpose. What are our lives except a compilation of memories? What has our time on earth amounted to if we lose all of that? Can we even say we know who we are?
The Buried Giant is so full of such symbolic content that it might have been totally insufferable had a lesser talent than Ishiguro written it. This breathtakingly composed fantasy — Ishiguro’s first novel in a decade following the wildly popular Never Let Me Go — is set in England sometime about the 5th century, in a period after Arthur and while the countryside is still riven by tension between the Britons and Saxons. The book’s virtues are many, but it is likely to leave even its biggest admirers with uncomfortable, mixed emotions.
Our protagonists are an elderly Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice. These may not be their actual names, but we are told such details aren’t important. Ishiguro’s prose, precise and disciplined, more than once breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly in a way that makes us feel we are hearing a legend passed on by oral tradition. Axl and Beatrice live in a village of warrens whose entire populace is suffering a peculiar kind of collective amnesia. Distant memories exist in flickers, however, and Axl has brief recall of a former life in which he may have been a man of great purpose and deeds. Disturbed by their situation and the feeling their town resents them as old and useless, Axl and Beatrice undertake an odyssey that they believe will reunite them with their son. The love and devotion between the two is almost unimaginably sweet. It’s rare enough to see a novel with elderly protagonists. To read one where the husband still tenderly calls his wife “Princess” without being cloying is quietly revelatory.
Along the way they have many encounters. The countryside is infested with dangerous ogres and malicious pixies. They meet a boatman, who might as well be wearing a “Hello, my name is Charon” tag on his cloak, who reveals something distressing: that when he rows people across to the island in the foggy distance, old couples always wish to go together but most often have to separate, because the passage of time and their fading memories have worn away the devotion and love they once had. This fills our couple with unbearable dread, and their determination never to let themselves be parted in this way becomes the beating heart of the story’s emotional journey.
They are joined in their travels by a Saxon warrior, Wistan; a boy, Edwin, whom they rescue from a village under attack by ogres; and eventually a wizened Sir Gawain, a faded shadow of his glory days as a Knight of the Round Table, yet still passionately loyal and committed to his king. The landscape is blanketed by a fog that we learn is responsible for the memory loss, and, like a fog, a sense of melancholy and loss blankets the entire book. There aren’t any heroes here, only a sense that once upon a time, heroism was something that mattered, even if no one can remember why. If Ishiguro’s goal was to strip medieval romance of all its romanticism, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
Since it’s long since been spoiled what the source of the fog is, I can tell you it is the breath of a sleeping dragon named Querig. And we learn that Wistan is as determined to slay this beast as Gawain is to protect it. Here we are presented with the book’s philosophical platform on time and memory. Is it better to forget the misdeeds of the past, or remember and face them head on? Axl becomes frightened of how Beatrice might react if she remembers who he once was. She in turn fears recalling youthful indiscretions that might drive him away. To both of them, the thought of being separated by the boatman is too much to bear. Similarly, Gawain argues that the uneasy peace upon the land is only possible if no one remembers the brutalities Saxons and Britons once dealt each other. Without the mist of forgetfulness, would a new era of war begin?
There is much here that is deeply moving and beautiful. Ishiguro’s writing is measured (perhaps too much so for some readers), but also haunting, dreamlike and hypnotic. His imagery is indelible. He handles conventions of heroic fiction like swordfighting scenes, not as action setpieces, but quiet, contemplative moments of tragedy. And yet emotionally, The Buried Giant has an odd way of drawing you in and keeping you at arm’s length at the same time. The story’s sense of melancholy eventually feels like futility. The intense sadness of its ending comes from the fact we knew what to expect early on, and yet a part of us held onto hope there might be a way to work around the inevitability of it all the same. What do our lives amount to without memory? the book asks. The answer seems to be, with or without memory, in the end, not a whole lot. Best to let sleeping dragons and buried giants lie.