The Book of Sorrow and Forgetting

Kazuo Ishiguro, master of buried secrets, on losing the past

Tomer Hanuka

Each of Kazuo Ishiguro’s seven novels has a “buried giant”—a monstrous secret that is gradually exhumed, with unsettling consequences. We happen upon a fingernail, then a tooth, an ulna, a rib cage, an occiput, each discovery staggering in itself, until finally we see the full shape of the colossus, appreciate its terribleness, and understand why it was buried in the first place. Ishiguro’s characters tend to bury their secrets beneath heavily reinforced strata of denial, self-delusion, and cognitive dissonance. In An Artist of the Floating World, we come to realize that the narrator, a retired master painter in postwar Japan, is not nearly as revered as he would like to believe, having destroyed his legacy by collaborating with the imperialist regime in the ’30s. The butler Stevens in The Remains of the Day haltingly discloses that his statesman employer was a Nazi sympathizer. Stevens is driven to obsession by his pursuit of dignity, which he cultivates at severe personal cost. But what dignity is available to a man who has devoted his life to comforting a Nazi?

The giant is not always buried within; in Never Let Me Go, it is the revelation that the narrator and her fellow boarding-school students are genetic clones being harvested for their internal organs. Often one buried giant leads to another, larger giant, and then another beneath him—giants all the way down. And in certain novels, like A Pale View of Hills and The Unconsoled, as well as in several of the stories collected in Nocturnes, Ishiguro’s previous book, the mysteries are not entirely resolved; we can see protruding bones but must imagine for ourselves how they connect. Always, however, there is the sense of crucial information being withheld. The revelations lead unerringly to reflection and a profound, deforming sense of regret. This process of exhumation is the distinguishing mark of Ishiguro’s style, which applies the techniques of detective fiction to the mysteries of the heart.

Might human civilization, in order to prosper, have no choice but to erase the past?

Veteran readers of Ishiguro therefore will approach The Buried Giant, his first novel in a decade, in a spirit of deep precaution. We know that first appearances will deceive, that we will not be able to rely upon our narrator’s word, that minor details noted in passing may prove to have outsize significance. But which details? There are plenty of surprising ones in the novel’s first pages, which situate us in an England “not much beyond the Iron Age,” populated by unnamed plagues, human settlements dug deep into hills, panting ogres who abduct small children, and a dragon.

“You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding land or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated,” the novel begins. From subsequent clues, we can deduce that the year is approximately 450 A.D., but despite our unnamed narrator’s anthropological tone, we are not in England as it actually was then, but as it was imagined seven centuries later by Geoffrey of Monmouth and the other mythologizers who gave us King Arthur, Sir Gawain, and the wizard Merlin. Can it be that The Buried Giant is an exalted exercise in fan fiction? It is hard to shake the sense that Ishiguro is up to his old tricks: one expects the ogres to be revealed as members of a rival village, the dragon to be some kind of a communal delusion, and Merlin to be a crackpot. But in fact the ogres are ogres, the dragon is a dragon, and Merlin actually does possess supernatural powers. Giants really do stride through Ishiguro’s England, and really are buried beneath it.

Our guides through the craggy hills and bleak moors of the medieval countryside are an elderly couple named Axl and Beatrice. They live in poverty, ostracized by the rest of their village, and appear to have sunk into a grim senility. They cannot remember basic facts about their past: Have they always lived in this village? Did they have children? We soon learn that this smothering forgetfulness does not afflict them alone. Their entire village is amnesic:

In this community the past was rarely discussed. I do not mean that it was taboo. I mean that it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes. It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past—even the recent one.

This activates one’s Ishiguro antennae. Might he not be evoking our own situation in the year 2015? As I write, the news is dominated by outrage over a torture report that describes atrocities we knew about 10 years ago; outrage over the sex crimes allegedly committed by a beloved comedian, despite the fact that some of those allegations have been public knowledge since at least 2005; and apocalyptic environmental forecasts, many of which were first articulated in the 1970s. Many novelists write about memory, but they tend to focus on the nexus between memory and identity. What are we but the sum of our memories? Ishiguro studies this question in The Buried Giant, but he is just as interested in collective memory. What does a society choose to remember? George Santayana is credited with coining the historian’s mantra, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The Buried Giant poses a heretical counterargument: Might human civilization, in order to prosper, have no choice but to erase the past?

Remember everything, and you lose the ability to forgive.

The “mist” that obscures the memories of Axl and Beatrice is no metaphor. It is in fact the breath of a she-dragon named Querig; her breath, thanks to a spell cast by Merlin, causes amnesia. Nearly everyone in the mist-shrouded valley is afflicted, apart from a Saxon warrior named Wistan, who is inexplicably immune. Axl and Beatrice become convinced that they have a son living in some distant village, and they decide to reunite with him. Wistan, for no immediately obvious reason, volunteers to escort them on their expedition. Completing their troupe is an addled young boy, Edwin, who is seeking his mother, also long missing. As the four tramp up a rough mountain road, past forests and vales and waterfalls, they encounter supernatural beasts and, among other travelers, Sir Gawain himself. The prose, as in many of Ishiguro’s novels, is lapidary and beguiling, suggestive of secrets to be disclosed. In the dialogue, however, he adopts an Arthurian register that, in its sincerity, tests credulity, perhaps because of the hallowed tradition of lampooning such diction, from At Swim-Two-Birds to Monty Python and the Holy Grail to The Princess Bride:

“Mistress,” I said to her, “I may look burdened by years. But I remain a knight of the great Arthur.”
“Curse me and banish me from your sight, for it’ll be a thing well earned.”
“Sir Gawain,” Axl said, “we have but one sword between us. I ask you not to grow melancholic, nor forget the beast is near.”

There are moments, however, when the fabulous dialogue cuts more sharply. As the elderly lovers walk single file on the rough path, Beatrice in front, she frequently calls back to make sure that her husband is keeping pace. “Are you still there, Axl?” she asks. “Still here, princess.” What better distillation of the experience of marriage? The litany runs throughout the novel like a haunting incantation. “Still here,” Axl replies—but not, we suspect, for long.

Gradually the buried giant is disinterred. We learn that during the great war between the Britons and the Saxons, Axl served King Arthur as a statesman. His greatest achievement was a treaty that ordered the Britons to spare Saxon women and children, but as the war intensified, the Britons violated the treaty, massacring entire villages. To avoid reprisals, Merlin cast his spell on the she-dragon, causing all the war’s survivors, Saxon and Briton alike, to forget that the genocide had ever occurred. But Wistan, who managed to escape the slaughter and grew up among the Britons, appears to have been spared by the mist. He sets out to kill the dragon, and afterward lead the Saxons to avenge their defeat. In this he is opposed by Gawain, who has taken it upon himself to defend the dragon and the country’s fragile peace.

Also emerging from the mist is a forgotten personal crisis between Axl and Beatrice. Why the couple should begin to remember their past as they get closer to Querig, the source of their amnesia, is unclear (the internal narrative logic is not nearly as taut as in previous Ishiguro novels), but the dawning awareness of past deceit forms a neat parallel with the reemergence of the Saxon-Briton conflict. In both public and private life, might forgetting past horrors be a balm? Why awaken the giant from its slumber?

The answer, as most readers will intuitively conclude, lies between two extremes. Forget everything and you lose your soul; remember everything and you lose the ability to forgive. Ishiguro’s characters, like all of us, are caught between the bliss of ignorance and the agony of Borges’s “Funes the Memorious,” tortured by the curse of total recall. Both our politics and our intimate relationships teeter on this axis. But for Ishiguro, our poet laureate of loss, the mercies of forgetfulness hold the greater fascination. This accounts for the novel’s wistful, dreamy, mournful quality. For all its dragon-slaying and swashbuckling, The Buried Giant is ultimately a story about long love and making terms with oblivion. It is an eerie hybrid: a children’s fable about old age. In Ishiguro’s novel, as in life, love conquers all—all, that is, but death.

By Kazuo Ishiguro

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