“Are You Living or Dead?”
The Buried Giant
By Kazuo Ishiguro
There aren’t many contemporary novelists who choose to address the reader directly — hey you! — and those who do echo a long line of aggrieved lunatics. “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat.” So begins Edgar Allan Poe’s parable of misdirection and murder, “The Cask of Amontillado.” Wait a moment, you think. Why does Montresor think I know the nature of his soul? “Now I would like to tell you, gentlemen, whether or not you want to hear it, why it is that I couldn’t even become an insect,” says Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, before launching into one of the most famous stories of delusion and contempt ever written.
Albert Camus plays the same card in The Fall, which begins with this sinister invitation:
May I, Monsieur, offer my services without running the risk of intruding? I fear you may not be able to make yourself understood by the worthy gorilla who presides over the fate of this establishment…. Unless you authorize me to plead your case, he will not guess that you want gin.
Monsieur is never given a voice in Camus’s novel. He is not a character, he is a mute and invisible listener — you. And by the time you figure out what kind of case the friendly man in the bar is pleading, it’s far too late to give the gorilla back his gin and get out of there. You are being cast in a role from which you cannot escape, just as in Poe’s story you become the confederate of a man who intends to bury his enemy alive and assumes that he has your approval. The more distance you try to put between yourself and the person who wants to pull you into his story, the more loudly you are accused. “You! hypocrite lecteur! — mon semblable, — mon frère!”
No one knows how to implicate a reader quite like the British writer Kazuo Ishiguro, whose most celebrated novels include the Booker Award-winning The Remains of the Day (1988), When We Were Orphans (2000), Never Let Me Go (2005), and now, The Buried Giant, published this spring. The people who address you from within the pages of these novels are not trying to involve you in their hatred for themselves and everyone else. They are not brooding over insults or hatching plans for revenge, and would not know what to make of a man who wants to turn himself into an insect. They don’t want to growl in your ear or spit in your face. They want to snuggle up and remind you of all that you have in common. You are a friend, a fellow traveler.
“I don’t know how it was where you were,” says Kathy H, the narrator of Never Let Me Go, referring to the British boarding schools where human clones are raised before being handed over to the state for gradual butchery. Kathy is a clone, and a “carer” — someone who helps “donors” recover from their mandatory surgeries before they “complete” — and she assumes that you are too. In this assumption she resembles the butler of Darlington Hall, Mr Stevens, who narrates The Remains of the Day as though he were speaking at a formal luncheon for butlers in declining circumstances exactly like his own. He says things like, “You will not dispute, I presume, that Mr Marshall of Charleville House and Mr Lane of Bridewood have been the two great butlers of recent times.” No dispute here. Or: “But you will no doubt agree that the very best staff plans are those which give clear margins of error to allow for those days when an employee is ill or for some reason or another below par.” Naturally.
Are you acquainted with the Mannering case of 1925? Christopher Banks, the British Golden Age detective who narrates When We Were Orphans, thinks that you are. In fact, he thinks that you are well versed in the details of all the murders he solved in and around London in the 1920s and 30s. That’s because Banks, like most of Ishiguro’s protagonists, cannot conceive of a world outside his own. He believes that you are part of that world, and because you are not, you can see that Banks’s perspective on a great many matters is distorted, and then you can take pleasure in watching him gradually come to the same conclusion. As Ishiguro has often said in interviews, his novels are not about clones, or butlers, or detectives. They are about people who are deeply embedded in a set of perceptions and beliefs that seem strange to us, either because they are antiquated or alien. It is a foolish reader who feels superior to these characters’ self-deceptions. They are versions of yours, mon semblable — mon frère.
From the opening sentence of The Buried Giant it is clear that with this novel Ishiguro is trying something new. “You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated,” he writes. Here we have the familiar address to the reader, but a narrator who knows that you are a stranger looking at an unrecognizable landscape. None of Ishiguro’s previous narrators have this kind of insight. A moment later, it’s clear why. The Buried Giant is narrated in the third person, not the first. The “I” of this novel is not the voice of a character — Kathy H, Christopher Banks, Mr Stevens — but the voice of an omniscient tour guide who tells us how different things were in 6th century England. The Romans have left, King Arthur is dead, superstition is rampant, and everyone believes in ogres, pixies and dragons. This is an enchanted but violent place whose inhabitants are all afflicted by what is called “the mist,” a cloud of forgetfulness that prevents them from recalling the bloody wars between the Britons and the Saxons that King Arthur brought to an end. Unfortunately, the mist that keeps the peace also keeps people from recalling who their children are, and why they love their husbands and wives (or don’t).What distinguishes The Buried Giant from Ishiguro’s earlier work is not its historical setting or its use of fantastical creatures, although reviewers have had a great deal to say about both, not all of it flattering. The difference is that for the first time in his career Ishiguro is telling a story about people who have almost no access to their own memories, with the help of a narrator who does not share their point of view.
The Buried Giant is about an elderly Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice, who set off on a journey to their son’s village and instead get pulled into a quest to kill the she-dragon, Querig, whose magical breath is producing the mist that made them forget that they had a son in the first place. Along the way, they meet a series of people who are not quite as they seem, including a Saxon warrior named Wistan, who wants to kill the dragon in order to unleash the retributive fury of his people, and Sir Gawain, the most famous of the knights of Camelot, now a creaky old man trying to keep the promise he made years ago to Arthur, which was to defend Querig from harm in order to keep the Britons and Saxons from each other’s throats.
In any of his previous novels, Ishiguro would have told this story from Axl’s point of view. Axl would narrate the tale of how he went in search of his missing son, blithely assuming that you, the reader, know all about 6th century England, and have regular encounters with Sir Gawain as well as frequent tussles with pixies. As Axl walked across the land with Beatrice, he would begin to excavate his memory, as all of Ishiguro’s protagonists do, telling you in fine-grained detail about how he was not always an anonymous peasant living in a burrow. Once he was known as “the Knight of Peace” for the central role — the axial role — he played in helping King Arthur to pass the “The Law of the Innocents,” which was meant to prevent the slaughter and rape of women and children, until it was broken by the very Britons who created it. Very slowly, and only through a long process of meticulous retrospection, Axl would realize that the mist that prevents him from remembering the years he has spent with his beloved wife, Beatrice, also protects him from remembering the betrayal of the Law that was meant “to bring men closer to God,” the countless scenes of brutality that he has witnessed, the moments of cruelty and infidelity in his marriage, and the knowledge that his son is not living in a neighboring village but is long dead. Perhaps Axl would only recognize some of the paradoxes of his journey, but you would see them all.
But this is not quite how The Buried Giant unfolds. Ishiguro’s signature narrative techniques of close-up intimacy and ironic distance are not at work here, and the result is a novel in which everything feels vague. Axl and Beatrice are slowly emerging from the dreaminess of their private world into a terrible reality, but the reality does not feel any more real than the dream. Perhaps that is the point. Ishiguro has described The Buried Giant as an allegory for the strategic forgetfulness of all nations, who have to find a way both to commemorate and obliterate the memory of the foundational massacres and genocides carried out within their borders. The balance is delicate. Forget too much, and you build an unstable polity based on lies; remember too much, and the cycles of grief and retribution never stop. When the Law of the Innocents failed, and the Britons raped and murdered Saxon villagers by the hundreds, King Arthur decided to achieve by magic what he could not achieve through diplomacy and rule of law. Hence Querig, and the enchanted mist.
When the Saxon warrior, Wistan, kills Sir Gawain and the dragon at the end of the novel, we know what will happen next. Wistan has already told his young protégée, a Saxon boy named Edwin, what they must do:
‘Should I fall and you survive, promise me this. That you’ll carry in your heart a hatred of Britons.’
‘What do you mean, warrior? What Britons?’
‘All Britons, young comrade. Even those who show you kindness.’
‘I don’t understand, warrior. Must I hate a Briton who shares with me his bread? Or saves me from a foe as lately did the good Sir Gawain?’
‘There are Britons who tempt our respect, even our love, I know this only too well. But there are now greater things press on us than what each may feel for another. It was Britons under Arthur slaughtered our kind. It was Britons took your mother and mine. We’ve a duty to hate every man, woman and child of their blood. So promise me this. Should I fall before I pass to you my skills, promise me you’ll tend well this hatred in your heart. And should it ever flicker or threaten to die, shield it with care till the flame takes hold again.’
As Wistan says, “When the hour’s too late for rescue, it’s still early enough for revenge.” The Buried Giant ends just as the Saxons’ genocidal revenge upon the Britons begins.
Would it have been better to let the dragon live? No, although Ishiguro gives this answer on metaphysical rather than moral grounds. He suggests that when people are prevented from remembering their lives they are also prevented from knowing how to die, which is why it is difficult to distinguish between reality and dreams in this novel, and even more difficult to tell the difference between the living and the dead. This problem is beautifully illustrated near the beginning of The Buried Giant, when Axl and Beatrice suddenly remember that they have a son, and set off to find him. As they walk it begins to rain, and they take shelter in a ruined Roman villa, where they meet a man who is clearly a version of Charon, the “humble boatman who ferries travellers across choppy waters.” He explains that he is aboveground rather than in Hades because on his occasional days off he likes to visit the villa where he grew up in order to enjoy his “precious memories” of when he was a “carefree child.” Unfortunately, his reveries are routinely disrupted by a “bird-like old woman” who comes to defile the villa. Every time Charon arrives home, the bird-woman meets him with a small animal in her hands, and then cuts its throat. Axl notices that “the dark patches beneath their feet, and elsewhere all over the ruined floor, were old bloodstains, and that mingled with the smell of ivy and damp mouldering stone was another faint but lingering one of slaughter.”
The boatman is furious with the old crone who comes to pollute his recollections, but she has her reasons. She explains that she torments the ferryman because he lied to her. She and her husband believed that the strength of their love would allow them to cross the river together, and live eternally as “wedded man and wife” on the island of the dead. “My husband and I knew this,” she insists. “We knew it as children.” “Good cousins,” she says to Axl and Beatrice, “if you search through your own memories, you’ll remember it to be true even as I speak of it now.” But somehow the boatman tricked the old woman into waiting on the shore, and then never came back. “His voice must have put us in a dream,” she says. Now her husband is alone on the island, and she is alone on earth. The boatman does not deny that couples who can demonstrate “an unusually strong bond of love” are allowed to cross over together, but he claims that the bird-woman and her husband failed the test.
Can you guess what the test is? Of course it is a test of memory. When a couple asks to be reunited in death, they are each required to speak of “their most cherished memories,” which allows the boatman to determine whether or not they are telling the truth about their love. But we know that the mist destroys memory, which means that it pollutes love, and even death, just as the bird-lady does when she uses her rusty old knife to rip the rabbit’s throat and spill blood on the remains of the ferryman’s childhood.
At the end of the novel, Axl and Beatrice meet the ferryman again. They don’t seem to recognize him, although they are happy to see him and eager to go to the island, where they imagine that they will be reunited with their son. Like the old woman, Beatrice asks the boatman about the special dispensation given to people who have loved one another well. More than allowing couples to cross together, this reprieve is believed to counter the “strange qualities” of the afterlife, which isolate people within their own dreams and prevent them from seeing or speaking to each other. When Axl is tested by the boatman, he confesses that years ago he and Beatrice quarreled bitterly, and their son ran away from home. He died soon after, of a plague, and Axl forbade his wife to visit the grave. Why? asks the boatman. Axl replies,
‘Perhaps it was a craving to punish, sir. I spoke and acted forgiveness, yet kept locked through long years some small chamber in my heart that yearned for vengeance. A petty and black thing I did her, and my son also.’
The boatman is understanding. “Don’t worry, friend,” he says. But he also says that Axl will have to wait on the shore while Beatrice crosses the water because they cannot both fit in the boat at the same time. He promises that he will come right back, and says, “It’s beyond question the two of you will dwell on the island together, going arm in arm as you’ve always done.” We don’t believe him, and neither does Axl.
Axl and Beatrice’s son is just one of the buried giants in this novel. Everywhere, there are bones emerging from the earth, along with half-submerged memories of abducted mothers, murdered children, broken promises, slaughtered husbands and sons. And above all, there are the birds. At least since Plato, birds have been associated with memory and with the souls of the dead. Ishiguro turns them into Furies, vengeful flocks of old women dressed in “flapping rags.” They are crones and crows at the same time, and everyone is afraid of them. The monks think they are demons, “agents of the devil,” although Axl has the wisdom to point out that they “may yet be agents of God.” Like the bird-woman who torments Charon, and like Charon himself, they embody everything that will not stay in its place underground, buried or forgotten, and safely relegated to the past tense. “What are you, ladies?” cries Gawain, “Are you living or dead?” The ladies just laugh. Who can tell the difference?
When Ishiguro gave a public talk about The Buried Giant in Toronto in March, he compared the process of writing a novel to building an airplane in your garage. Reviewers and readers focus on details of how the book is put together — why 6th-century England? Why a dragon? Why Sir Gawain? Why the shifts in point of view in the last chapters? — but all he’s trying to do is get the thing to fly. This propeller or that one, this sprocket or the one over there, it doesn’t matter. The goal is to make a heavy and complicated piece of machinery soar. Yet if anything, I wanted The Buried Giant to be more firmly in contact with the ground. I don’t mean that it’s difficult to see how the novel interacts with the global history of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, government apologies and cover-ups, war memorials, genocides, prison camps, missing women, and mass graves. With infinite subtlety Ishiguro makes us see how these horrors, which are always carried out in the name of some greater public good, turn every living thing into a ghost even as they evict the dead from the earth.
The novel’s deliberate weightlessness is a reach toward allegory, fairy tale, or myth that can be moved into any historical or geographical context and still release its meaning. Even Ishiguro’s prose feels unplaceable. “For our brave cousins fight two abreast on the stairs,” says Wistan to Edwin, “and the invaders can but meet them two against two.” Wistan’s unfamiliar locutions remind us that as a Saxon he has learned English as a second language, but they also produce speech that feels made to travel anywhere without ever being at home. In reaching for universality, Ishiguro loses his grip on what he does best, which is to pull the reader into the mind of a stranger whom you gradually recognize as your twin. No such recognition takes place in The Buried Giant, despite the obvious links between the novel and reality. In his previous novels, Ishiguro conjures the universal out of specifics. If Mr. Stevens goes motoring, we know what kind of car he is driving (a Ford), and that it runs out of gas in a village called Moscombe, near Tavistock, Devon. When We Were Orphans begins with a chapter called “London, 24 July 1930,” and then with a detailed description of Christopher Banks’s sitting room circa 1923, including his tea service. By contrast, The Buried Giant unfolds in a timeless and disembodied haze. Paradoxically, the result is a story so evanescent that it does not feel quite of this or any world.
Alice Brittan teaches post-colonial and world literature at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is finishing a book called Empty-Handed: On Gifts and Grace and beginning one called Notes on Miracles.