Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, his first in ten years, is The Buried Giant (2015)–a provocative crossover between literary fiction and fantasy. It seems like a novel written from a long withheld desire of mine. The Buried Giant is set in post-Roman, post-Arthurian England with magic, gallivanting, pixies, and boatmen: I remember a field trip to replica Saxon villages in Middlesex as a primary school student there and pouring over runes and rhymes in Old English classes in college. This novel goes deep into his philosophical concerns about memory and identity: I remember being wowed as I tried to extrapolate meaning from Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled (1995) in my senior year at high school. To combine these and create a fantasy in the fallen world that not only explores, but triggers understanding of existential themes is a great achievement and, it turns out, a stellar, devastating read.
Axl and Beatrice are an old married couple living in poverty and confinement in a small Briton village. They are aware that they are losing their memory, but they conclude that this is not an individual phenomenon. It seems like others too are forgetting their histories and why they are performing tasks. Early in the novel, they seem to remember that they had a son and that he had traveled to a nearby village. Their constriction and mortality compel them to break the routine of their bodies and search for their son. The novel is a tale of that journey on foot through the damp, forbidding mounds of untamed England country.
This collective phenomenon of the retraction of memory is called the mist. And a pleasure of this book is to see this mist lift for the narrative to reveal itself. But I’ll say this. Their journey on foot, escaping monsters, conversing with witches, witnessing battles, is a trip back through their memory and its stories and its set narratives. They start their journey sure of each other, their marital love, and the promise of their continued union, but that is questioned, tested, and judged in the final pages of the novel. With this shifting, I wonder: what is the use of these set narratives–these memories–if they program us to act a certain way? And not only that, but determine the mental understanding of our identity? Their journey is a reverse Odyssey. While memory loss of Odysseus prevents him from fulfilling his desire to return to his wife, memory itself clouds and casts aspersions on what these partners are to each other.
Release from the demands of memory can be a release from the past and an enabler of growth. But there is a hidden step here. There is the recognition brought on by memory and then the adherence to memory. When a Saxon warrior, who suffers no memory loss due to the mist, tells his acolyte to promise never to forget and to always hate the Britons, he is demanding allegiance to a certain narrative brought on by a collective memory. If there is an ethics of identity, where members of a certain group are ethically required to act in a certain way, then there appears to be an ethics of memory. While adherence may not be necessitated individually or collectively, it takes courage to break the cycle and perceive the world with the story of the past, the promise of the future, but, in the foreground, the light of the present.
Book Review: 8/10: Kazuo Ishiguro has created not a fantasy, but a detective story. The criminal is memory and the victim is who you know you are.