The Buried Giant – does it stir?

Posted: 4 February 2018 in Book Review, Cultural, Understanding Others
Tags: , , ,

Buried Giant.jpgKazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant”.  Does it stir?  Will the earth quake as it breaks surface?  If you are looking for a literary Godzilla, go elsewhere. Ishiguro’s tales is set in England, after the Romans have left and the first Saxons have arrived.  It also is a canvas for memory, loss and forgiveness to be explored.  Easy to read – it is not a light read.  And like the travellers in the book, the allegories can readily lead you into forests with little light.

(This seeks to be a spoiler free review.)  The tale starts with an older couple, Axl and Beatrice, becoming unsettled in their village life, and setting off to find their son who had left home years earlier.  It is very early on that the land feels under a mist that smothers memory.  Recollections of the past are in fragment only, if existing at all.  As time passes and encounters on the road occur, are shards of the past snatched back.  There are knights and monks, but few.  There are even pixies, ogres and a dragon, but they are dangerous, they too weak and shadowy.  The dialogue between the people, even adversaries is exquisite, charming, graceful.  Polite, even to an irritating extent.  So so far are we from the oft coarse discourse of Twitter, or from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave DC 20500.

This is not really a fantasy novel, but a platform for human problems unpacked by human action.  For instance, the mist of unknowing.  Several times characters ask of eachother, if we take action to lift this mist and we get to remember the past, what will emerge?  Axl and Beatrice recognise that there is a risk of bringing to the surface bitter and unhappy memories.  But they believe the gains will outweigh the losses.  This is a question we in long relationships, need to ask ourselves too.  Are some things best left unearthed?  Psychoanalysis suggests that leaving sleeping dogs lie comes with a cost, but are Axl and Beatrice ready to pay?  Indeed – it is the same question being asked in Spain, and they dig up the bones from the Spanish Civil War that had been left undisturbed for 60 years.  Longer than the time Ishiguro imagined in this book.

As the mist shifts and bits of the past emerge, Ishiguro raises the theological and moral question of forgiveness and grace, between those who are Christians and who followed the Saxon gods.  The notion that the Christians can do wicked acts and then be “let off” by receiving forgiveness from the Christian God is seen as unjust by a key Saxon character.  War crimes from the past need to the met with justice now.  Or failing that, respond with revenge.  Ishiguro himself says that this approach to forgiveness of past deeds has enabled western powers to enslave and pillage[1].  He is right to note – forgiveness is outside of the fine balance of what is known as Retributive Justice, and lies within Restorative Justice (see my other blogs on this).  While true forgiveness comes free, grasping it comes with reversal of behaviour.  The slaver cannot send out his ships yet again, but scrap them.  The abuser cannot strike the spouse again, but kneel to listen to the tears and anger of the abused.  This is not “cheap grace”.  Alas for England, in “The Buried Giant” the mist will rise, old sins will be remembered, and “it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall”.

In my view, this is the bigger part than the couple’s journey and where that will end.  True, how much remembrance can we bear, for each of us in long relationships.  But the story is one for national remembrance and it is explicitly set in England.  We look back to Arthurian glories of Churchill, Finest Hour, Dunkirk movies but live in a stupor as for what England is about now.  However on 23 June 2016, an old beast was slain.  The fog is lifting slowly. And a harsh reckoning will come on us all in UK.  The Buried Giant – a Brexit novel?  Perhaps yes.


[1] The New Yorker 20 Mar 2015


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