The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro transports us to Britain shortly after the death of King Arthur. Although the war between the Saxons and the Britons is over, peace is tenuous. Against a backdrop of festering tensions, an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, decide to go on a quest to seek their lost son. As they slowly make their way toward their son’s village, they encounter ogres, crones, a warrior, a young boy with a mysterious bite mark, Sir Gawain of King Arthur’s court, pixies, monks who want to kill them, monks who want to save them, mythical creatures, and a boatman who intentionally separates couples by ferrying only one partner to an island while leaving the other partner stranded.
To complicate matters further, a mist is ever-present throughout the land, causing people to suffer from collective amnesia. Axl and Beatrice struggle to remember their past, recollecting bits and pieces as they trudge along. They detour along the way, either because they seek help from a wise elder or because they want to assist others in need of help. Eventually they get embroiled in the search for Querig, a mysterious dragon that ostensibly terrorizes the land.
Ishiguro has written a masterpiece in which fable, allegory, and magical realism intersect. The novel has received mixed reviews, some of which were critical of the style, content, and characterization. But if the characters seem detached, removed, and unengaged, it is because they are characters in a fable. If the language seems archaic, pedantic, and overly-polite, it is because it has to be distanced from every day speech. We are immersed in a land replete with mythical creatures and monsters, knights in armor, an elderly couple on a quest, and mysterious happenings all of which are shrouded in a mist of forgetfulness. But this isn’t a novel about pre-Saxon England. The setting, characters, and plot are vehicles to engage us with the theme of the novel—a meditation on memory.
The recurring thread weaving its way throughout the novel is about memory, the buried giant of the title. What do we remember and what, if anything, is best forgotten? On a personal level, can love between two people endure when memories of grievances, abandonment, and infidelities intrude? And on a collective level, can there be peace between two former warring factions when memories of atrocities, brutalities, and genocide inflicted by both sides continue to haunt? At what price do we remember? Do we have to confront the good and the bad in order to heal? Is it better to suppress all memories, in essence to bury the giant, in order to forget injustices? Or is it better to remember injustices of the past and risk getting caught up in the thirst for revenge? The characters grapple with these questions and, by extension, invite us to do the same.
Ishiguro gradually builds meaning as the narrative unfolds. The language is mesmerizing; the world he creates blends history with mythology with fantasy. This is a fable that raises profound questions about the efficacy of personal and collective memories and their role in healing and reconciliation—questions as relevant today as they were in the past.