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Reviews

The Buried Giant

Andrew Tate

The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro

Faber & Faber, 345pp

An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, navigate 'the desolate, uncultivated' and dangerous landscape of sixth century Britain in search of the son from whom they are estranged; their memories are, at best, hazy and the pair alternate between tender expressions of affection and fleeting moments of fractiousness, inspired by half-remembered disappointment and regrets. The quest is also made more complicated by encounters with a solitary (and easily offended) knight, secretive monks, an enigmatic warrior, the occasional ogre and a dragon. Courageous acts are undercut by a muted sense of the absurd as characters frequently lose their bearings and motivation. This bald description perhaps sounds more like Game of Thrones re-written by Samuel Beckett than might be expected from the author of The Remains of the Day and An Artist of the Floating World. Yet Kazuo Ishiguro's fiction has often thrived on the fuzzy distinction between fantastical phenomena and the mysteries of ordinary, waking life. His last novel, Never Let Me Go (2005), was made all the more effectively dystopian by its focus on the minutiae of everyday longings in a noirish near-future; a decade later, The Buried Giant moves in the opposite direction, wandering a millennia and more into the nation's deep, mythic past and to a country marked by the wars of the legendary King Arthur, a figure who is revered by some as a great king and resented by others as a tyrannical winner. Like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, Ishiguro blends Christian traditions with those of alternative mythologies: characters pray to the 'God Jesus' whilst they watch a poisoned ogre drowning; Roman narratives of crossing a river to the next life vie with the hope of resurrection. The writer's experiments with a popular genre are characterized by a nagging feeling that we've been here before; the logic of a recurring dream pervades this odd fable. The memory loss that vexes Axl and Beatrice is not, it transpires, merely one of the depredations of ageing but a widely shared phenomenon. Their village is one in which 'the past was rarely discussed' and even recent peril is quickly forgotten in favour of minor community squabbles. As Axl grasps at 'fragments of remembrance' - was he really a father and if so, where are his children? - he reflects on the sinister 'mist' of forgetting that seems to have descended on the land. Amidst this collective memory loss, Axl and Beatrice slip away from their settlement, in pursuit of a prodigal son and, more pressingly, of the truth. The couple encounter Wistan, a mysterious Saxon soldier, and his charge, Edwin, an orphaned and exiled boy, with trials and tasks of their own. Their shared story does not quite follow the typical hero's journey - the two Britons have long since come of age, their own (perhaps) valiant rites of passage evaporated into the miasma of lost time. They are reminiscent of Shakespeare's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: they know themselves to be bit players in a much bigger drama, seekers after security and meaning in a world hostile to both of those longed for commodities. Ishiguro's title itself echoes Matthew Arnold's 'The Buried Life' (1852), an ambivalent hymn to humanity's capacity for evasion and repression: the 'nameless sadness' of life lived in flight from emotional honesty. The novel is partly about the dangers - and attraction - of willed cultural amnesia. The things that Axl and Beatrice have failed to remember are crucial to their identity - in the supernatural sense of this fictional universe, faithful memory is regarded as a potential safeguard to a happy afterlife - but their acts of forgetting connect with a more sinister form of memory loss. Axl gradually recalls fields of blood and slaughtered innocents but hopes that such 'a barbarous past' is 'gone forever'. The young warrior who joins his journey laments, however, that he has 'seen dark hatred as bottomless as the sea on the faces of old women and tender children, and sometimes felt such hatred myself'. This is not an allegory in the same sense as Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress but there are strong - and disquieting - parallels with the horrors of contemporary warfare: the narrative remembers peaceable neighbours who are forced to turn against each other in times of war because of religion or ethnicity; military leaders who dispensed with humanitarian imperatives in favour of assuring power; the vulnerable sacrificed to uphold a specious ideal of purity. The Buried Giant may appear to be a flight into the past but it engages with timely political problems. Is it better to forget injustice in the name of peace? Is hatred learned or deep-rooted in the human psyche? To whom does land belong? These questions have a strong theological charge. Wistan treats his older friends with respect but, as a Saxon raised among Britons, he is sceptical of their declared religion, one that preaches both justice and mercy but which seems quick only to excuse the private sins of the powerful. 'What kind of god is it, sir, wishes wrongs to go forgotten and unpunished?,' he enquires. The search for personal peace exemplified by Axl and Beatrice is one that cannot be achieved without an awareness of the demands of a near impossible justice. The narrative is too sophisticated to offer a reductive answer to the reality of our violent past, though I rather wish that the burden of peace-making had been explored in more detail in the novel's concluding part. John Updike once claimed that a myth acts as nation's 'bad conscience'. The Buried Giant is a reminder that the recovery of the past is not simply a nostalgic folly but can be an ethical requirement if we are to live without bloodshed.