Memories play a vital role in human life. It is also necessary to forget many things because some memories may be a painful burden. Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, The Buried Giant, is about memories.
Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple, set out in search of their son. They don’t remember why their son left them. In fact, their memories about many things are vague. It is because of a magic that King Arthur’s beloved magician, Merlin, had performed in order to bring peace among the Britons and the Saxons.
The novel is set in those days when the Romans had left Britannia and the Saxons came in to take their place. King Arthur is no more but his nephew, Sir Gawain, is alive though very old. Axl and Beatrice will encounter Sir Gawain on their way. Two other persons who join them are Wistan and Edwin. Wistan is a Saxon warrior who hates Britons. His mission is to kill the dragon Querig who is as wise as she is wicked. Sir Gawain’s mission is to protect the dragon because it is through her breath that Merlin’s magic continues to work. The monks in the monastery where Axl and Beatrice take shelter on their way to their son’s village are also defenders of the dragon. Edwin is a young boy in search of his mother.
The plot brings together more fantasy and myths than history and reality. Yet it raises penetrating questions about real life. One of the monks in the monastery asks Beatrice whether she really wants the mist of forgetfulness to clear, the mist that Merlin’s magic has brought about. “Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?” The monk’s question is the central question of the novel. Finally, when Wistan succeeds in his mission and the mist clears, Axl wonders: “You and I longed for Querig’s end, thinking only of our own dear memories. Yet who knows what old hatreds will loosen across the land now?”
Life is never a crystal-clear affair. There is no pure love. Our kindness is tinged with suspicion or even cruelty. There are traces of vengeance in our forgiveness. Justice hardly exists in human affairs. Even the God of the monks is an unjust god who is ready to forget the foulest sins by drawing a veil of penance over them. In Wistan’s words, “Your Christian god of mercy gives men licence to pursue their greed, their lust for land and blood, knowing a few prayers and a little penance will bring forgiveness and blessing.”
The monks themselves are a dubious lot. They are not as kind as they appear. Sir Gawain explains to Axl and Beatrice that “As men of Christ, it’s beyond them to use a sword or even poison.” So they use devious methods to kill those whom they consider as enemies.
Axl and Beatrice, the central characters, are a very loving couple. They can’t even think of living apart for a moment. Yet is their love purer than any other human love? Can they be holier than the monks?
Querig, the dragon, can be killed. But what about the giant within us? That is what the novel explores.
It is a beautiful narrative that takes over the reader entirely from the beginning. We immerse ourselves into it. But every now and then the mythical creatures appear reminding us that we are in a fantasy land. The novel is a unique experience. For those who enjoy rare, unique experiences and don’t expect life to be a neat system of rights and wrongs fairly balanced or rewarded, this novel is highly recommended.