Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant (Alfred Knopf Canada 2015).

The Buried Giant is the seventh novel from Ishiguro and his first in a decade, since Never Let Me Go was published in 2005.  Whereas his last novel was about cloning in a dystopian near-future, the new one is set in a post-Arthurian fantasy Britain.  That choice of setting raised some eyebrows, and the novel has been badly roughed up by critics, including James Wood in The New Yorker and Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times.

Critics found the novel’s allegory to be unconvincing and the attempt at archaic dialogue to be “old timey” and even laughably “Monty Pythonesque”.  Ishiguro’s famously flat style and his interest in the banalities of human life were, they argued, curiously out of place for a setting that is usually chosen for heroic fantasy.  The Buried Giant is set just after the reign of King Arthur and a bitter war between Saxons and Britains, but no one can remember much of it because people have had their long-term and even much of their short-term memories stolen by something they refer to as “the mist”.

The heroes of the novel are not warriors but an eldery couple, Axl and Beatrice, who set out on a journey to try and find their son, who they can only vaguely recall.   The journey becomes a larger quest about memory and launches an ethical discussion about whether a society (or a marriage, for that matter) can afford to forget wrongs committed in order to live at peace, or whether recalling those offences is necessary for justice (and perhaps reconciliation) even at the risk of rupture, hatred, and the renewing of cycles of violence.  The question, as Wood notes, is what Ishiguro is prompting us to think of “by literalizing historical amnesia in this way”.

As Axl and Beatrice come to the end of their quest, they discover that “the mist” is an enforced truce, a wizard’s solution to war that is, as James Wood calls it, “a kind of psychological Dayton Agreement”.  This a clever quip on Wood’s part, because it touches on the terrible reawakenings of national memory and grievance post-Tito that provoked the Balkan wars of the 1990s.  However, while the phrase “Never Forget” can become a national slogan (Israel and the Holocaust and the USA and 9/11 come to mind), it’s hard to imagine a national process of reconciliation where the remembrance of past crimes is not a necessary precondition for reconciliation and forgiveness.  If Isihiguro is saying that to remember violence and crimes committed is to risk fresh crimes and new cycles of violence committed in the name of vengeance, he seems to suggest that such risks are worth the price of memory and the possibility of better futures.  Axl and Beatrice’s kind farewell to a young Saxon, who is being groomed to hate Britons, seems to suggest that one can remember the past without falling victim to it.

Something not mentioned in the reviews I’ve read, but raised (to my mind) by the choice of two aged protagonists with memory problems, is the spectre of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.  I wouldn’t suggest that Ishiguro is setting this theme up as a minor allegory, but the affection between the two that persists after the loss of memory, and their inevitable forced parting, makes Axl and Beatrice poignant and (dare I say) contemporary characters, despite the archaic fantasy setting.  As they anticipate the return of their pasts, both characters wonder if their devotion to one another will withstand the recovered memories of damages inflicted.     Ishiguro thus raises the question of how memory and reconciliation work eenin the most intimate relationships.

Given Ishiguro’s famously flat style, readers may be disappointed by two of the briefest and most laconic swordfights that have surely ever been described in a novel.   Likewise, while there are ogres, pixies, and even a dragon, they are, not surprisingly, presented in the most muted ways imaginable.   Readers will have to decide if these descriptions, like fragments of memory, are enough.

I found The Buried Giant a frustrating but strangely satisfying work, that left me with more questions than answers.  Perhaps, as an English prof of mine once said of King Lear, another work about an old man whose memory is in tatters, it is a book only suited to those at certain stages of life.