Axl and Beatrice have enjoyed many long, happy years of marriage. Their love can endure any turbulence. They know this. But for some reason, they cannot remember the moments that comprise their relationship. The past has become a void and the present, though pleasant enough, is doomed to be forgotten. It’s true that Axl and Beatrice are edging into their twilight years (the couple are no longer trusted with even a candle to light their room in the hillside warren that serves as their village). Memory loss is not uncommon in the elderly. And even among the young, memories are flawed and fleeting. It’s a tragic fact of mortal existence. But this plague of forgetfulness is not specific to them. No one in their subterranean village possesses memories extending much beyond the previous day. Children go missing (for, scant decades after the fall of King Arthur, ogres were still known to roam the countryside), but, after an hour, the adults forget about them and stop searching.
Sifting through the phantom emotions that have replaced true memories, the couple unearth a fact they agree must be true: that they have a son living in a distant village. Neither Axl nor Beatrice can recall the reason for his leaving, or even the village where he went, but Beatrice knows that if only they start the journey, the path will become clear. And meeting their son will no doubt trigger a flood of cherishable memories.
The Buried Giant is Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in ten years and it is definitely the black sheep of his seven-book compendium. Though it does not differ thematically or stylistically with his other novels, it is the setting that marks it apart. The majority of his works are set after the year 1900 and occur in a world recognizable as our own. The Buried Giant, however, is a work of fantasy fiction set around the sixth century. It’s a bold move for someone of such literary notoriety as Ishiguro. Fantasy is usually bracketed as pulp, written purely for entertainment, devoid of intellectual insight or academic value. (I beg to differ with these assumptions and can call to mind a host of examples to the contrary. Yet the fact remains that critics are wary of the genre.) Having read the book, I managed to understand at least one of the reasons why Ishiguro chose the environment he did. Fantasy is a highly conductive vehicle for metaphor. And The Buried Giant is a book that finds metaphor as its primary fuel source. The first of many you’ll encounter is the title itself. In the story, the “buried giant” is a hill, purportedly the final resting place of a long dead giant. Travelers are careful to walk around the hill, rather than over it, as climbing the hill is way of contracting evil luck. Just as certain traumatic memories are best left undisturbed.
This becomes a major theme throughout the novel. The loss of good memories is viewed as tragic and the loss of bad ones is an improvement. But one cannot simply remember the happy times and let unpleasant memories fade. The two are intertwined so that the good comes with the bad. The notion that happy times and sad times occur separately is folly.
Ishiguro’s strength as an author comes from the level of realism he gives his work. In Never Let Me Go, his 2005 novel, he took strenuous care to depict childhood and adolescence as it truly is, never skimping on moments of blandness and banality (the book is full of dull scenes and only toward the end does the reader understand how precious those unremarkable moments are). Ishiguro carries that sense of reality with him, even on a foray into the realm of fantasy. The Middle Ages are depicted without the benefit of romanticism. Swords are present, and knights to wield them, yet there is no swashbuckling. Only moments of swift brutality. This may be considered sacrilege by the more stringent fans of fantasy, though, personally, I saw it as one of the story’s strong points.
The Buried Giant is a novel about the bittersweet necessity of remembrance and the inescapability of loss. It’s a sad book, but not a tearjerker. Ishiguro does not subscribe to such sentimental sappiness. His brand of sadness is far too relatable for tears. The reader is given nothing to cry over except their own mortal state. It’s an intelligent and knowing book. Not the kind of thing one reads for enjoyment, but rather, an increased understanding of our human strengths and foibles.