Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Buried Giant: A Timeless Fable

Kazuo Ishiguro manages to create something new every time he writes a novel. Remains of the Day, in its subtlety, stayed with me long, long after the last page. I remember feeling apprehensive about the movie, remembering one particularly poignant scene, just as the main character had learned that the woman he loved--without telling her--was married. He remarked that at that point, his heart had broken. That line kept echoing.  How, I wondered, could anyone, even as great an actor as Anthony Hopkins, convey that emotion without words.  He did.

This new novel, The Buried Giant, only compares to Remains of the Day in its British setting and perhaps its subtlety. But it's not set in modern Great Britain; instead, he has placed his two main characters, Axl and Beatrice, in the time just after Arthur's day, when an uneasy, easily broken peace exists between the Britons and Saxons.

As one might expect from a Medieval Romance, the story contains supernatural elements, such as Querig, a she-dragon whose breath has caused "the mists" that obscure the memory of the humans.  Ishiguro even placed an aging Sir Gawain, still wearing armor and riding his old battle horse, trying to uphold the tenets of knighthood.

The narrative opens as Axl and Beatrice, living in a warren-like village, deprived unjustly of a candle by their neighbors, acknowledge to one another the mysterious loss of memory affecting everyone around them. They decide to strike out on a journey to find their only son, gone a long time--although they can't exactly remember why or where. Along the way, they encounter villagers falling victim to their own fears and superstitions. As I read, I kept finding interesting parallels to my all-time favorite "journey book," Watership Down.

They must avoid being caught up in the fights of others as they visit a Saxon village to find a wise medicine woman; they also realize the danger of complacency in a place they should be able to feel safe, particularly in a monastery where practices of penance leave scarred monks and bloodstained grounds.

The theme that moves through the story is found in an unanswered question: Might it sometimes be better not to forget the past, at least long enough for peace to overcome bitterness? Around the time of the Charleston shootings, I read through a particularly powerful section of the narrative in which the warrior Winstan instructs his young protogee, in the event of his mentor's death, to promise to continue hating all Britons and trying to rid the world of them. Axl, meanwhile, acknowledges that the lapse of memories--even his own from a warrior past--can provide an environment ripe for  forgiveness and peace. How ironic that our nation continues to be divided by our widely disparate memories, unable or unwilling to let forgiveness begin.

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