Monday, November 9, 2020

Kazuo Ishiguro, "The Buried Giant"

The most remarkable thing about Kazuo Ishiguro's writing is that each of his books is completely different from the others. His most famous book, Remains of the Day, was made into a movie that many of you may have seen, with Anthony Hopkins as a rigidly honorable English butler living through the decline of the world that needed butlers. My favorite is Never Let Me Go, a near-future science fiction tale that I won't describe because I don't know how not to give away the very powerful conclusion that slowly grows on the reader and that still lingers darkly in my mind.

The Buried Giant, by contrast, is not a particularly good book. It has a fascinating premise, but one that could have been dealt with very easily in a 20-page short story. It is padded out into a short novel by page after page of formalized, pseudo-medieval conversion among people who mostly don't have a lot to say. I am now going to ruin the book for you, since I found the premise intriguing but the book around it tedious. 

The Buried Giant (2015) is set in Britain a generation after the death of King Arthur. In this world Britons and Saxons live side by side at peace, and the only fighting is against ogres and dragons. But nobody can remember anything. The two main characters are an elderly couple who decide to visit the son they can barely remember, before they forget him entirely; but really they are not sure how well they remember their son, or even if they ever had a son, since they can hardly remember last week. Along their journey they meet three children surviving on their own after their parents wandered off and forgot about them.

We discover that the forgetting, which they call the mist, is caused by the breath of a dragon named Querig. Various people want to kill this dragon and thereby clear their minds, but somehow this has not happened. Our main characters wonder if restoring their memories would really be a good thing; they have a great relationship now, but what if their returned memories included horrible fights, infidelities, or other wrongs they did each other? They decide that it does not matter, that whatever they remember will be fine, since they know they ended up  in a great place. But the reader is not so sure.

We learn, eventually, that Querig's breath causes forgetting because of a great spell that Merlin cast for Arthur, so that Britons and Saxons would forget the wrongs they have done to each other and live at peace. Since nobody remembers the relatives slain by their enemies, they have no reason to fight. And it has worked, maintaining the peace for a generation. Before he passed away Arthur charged his knights to defend the dragon with their lives, so that the peace could be maintained.

When the dragon is slain, we glimpse the future that we know of in history, a wave of Saxons marching across the island, conquering and killing, centuries of slaughter.

I find this fascinating. I suppose the obvious parallel would be Israelis and Palestinians, caught up to the death in memories of past wrongs.

Or seen in another way it is about the self, identity, and memory; who we are is what we remember. So the memories of loss that drive conflict are fundamental to our identities; without memory we can only drift, forgetting our own children. With it, we are forced to constantly confront the horrors of the past.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

It does rather sound like a premise suited more for a short story.

That said, I myself have sometimes wondered where the balancing point is for the benefits and costs of forgetting terrible aspects of the past.

Either extreme becomes wildly problematic - keeping alive hatreds for generations based on ancient grudges is beyond idiotic, but so is remaining wholly ignorant of the past and learning nothing from it. You have to strike a balance somewhere, and the interesting question is where that line gets drawn, and how it shifts in different situations.

For example, part of me is heartened to think that there are few left alive who still remembers the horrors of the World Wars. We should be grateful that the hatreds and conflicts that separated people of different nations previously have been forgotten, and now former Allied Powers are true and loyal friends and allies of former Axis Powers - that we here in America can amicably discuss the works of prominent Japanese authors, filmmakers, et cetera, who would once have been "enemies".

But at the same time, another part of me worries that so many people alive today are so deeply ignorant of the mistakes of the past, made on all sides of every conflict - the collective errors and crimes of humanity itself. We aren't doing nearly enough to remember the past in order to effectively avoid repeating it.

The paradoxical part is that sometimes, forgetting can help make "remembering" easier later on. Rediscovery of the past, after the oblivion of forgetting has deprived us of deeply rooted preconceptions and hatreds, seems to often be far superior for achieving true knowledge without bias or distortion.

Often we learn better after we've gotten some distance and perspective on things.