I almost didn’t read The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro because it sounded childish and so I put it on my list of books-to-read, but it was a ways down. Then Ishiguro won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature and I moved the book to the top of my list. I discovered that this is no child’s book, although it is a fantasy that reads a bit like a fairy tale, but more in the old Grimm’s brother’s mode than in the newer spirit of the culturally appropriate versions we tell our children these days.
There is a giant buried under Briton but no one remembers it’s there because a mist or spell has made people forget their past almost as soon as they have lived it. The Saxons live in complexes of interconnected caves and we find Axl and Beatrice in a cave, a lonely cave, set at the very end of such a series of caves. As punishment, perhaps for being elderly, they are no longer allowed to have a candle to get them through the long, dark night. In a snatch of memory that comes and goes they remember that they have a son and they think they remember that he went south to a new village. Perhaps the mist is getting less dense and that is why these thoughts slip through.
Beatrice and Axl seem a lovely, devoted couple. They hold hands. Axl hugs her quite a lot. He addresses her as Princess (does it seem after a while to resemble the “yes dear” uttered by some modern husbands?) Beatrice and Axl have talked many times about leaving their village and going to their son. On this particular occasion they finally make their departure. Beatrice has a pain in her side that will not go away but she keeps up with her husband. On their journey they also hope to find out what causes this infernal mist on their minds. They decide to take a longer route in order to consult some wise people about Beatrice’s pain and as a result they meet some surprisingly interesting people, and they become part of some very significant events.
But memory is not always as sweet as we think it will be. Sometimes, perhaps what is buried should remain buried. The giant that has been buried is all of the animosity that survived the invasion of the Britons into the Saxon lands. And the mist makes sure that these things stay buried. How do Beatrice and Axl come to learn of this? How does their journey turn into a quest? The Britons had an enlightened leader. He tried to stop his men from raping and pillaging, but battles release chemicals that leave men wanting rewards for their victories and the toll on the Saxons is as terrible as the toll in any war when the victors help themselves to the “spoils” of war.
Are there parallels in this for our times? I see some in the Pandora’s Box of ancient hatreds that were harbored in the hearts of various cultural/religious groups in Iraq and kept in check only by a ruler who used threats and tortures to keep these groups from each other’s throats. I see this in our own country which has buried the victory of the anti-slavery forces in order to keep our nation whole, an act which allowed the losers to act like the victors for far too long at the expense of Americans of African Descent and our future unity. This has implications for those who like to say that the Holocaust never happened.
While forgetting may keep the peace for a while the costs of forgetting may be great and the repercussions different than could ever be imagined. Forget or remember – is either a good choice as long as there is hate and war and “the other”? Now I don’t know if these parallels were all intended by Ishiguro in his book The Buried Giant, or if you will interpret the tale in similar ways, but the story is following me around like a bit of a nag and asking me to think about it some more, and that is a good thing.