For most of its duration, this young century has been distinguished by a particular slogan: “Never Forget.” While previously applied to other causes, most notably the Holocaust, for many readers the phrase calls to mind only one date.
While I am not sure Kazuo Ishiguro intended readers to understand his novel as a direct political statement, it raises questions about memory and forgetting–questions so relevant in the post-9/11 era. Part of the brilliance of this novel is that it can be read at face value and enjoyed as a fantasy novel complete with dragon, pixies, and questing knights, or it can be read deep, deeper, and deeper still, until the reader begins scrutinizing the words not on the page as intensely as each description and every scrap of dialog. We know from interviews that the author scrapped an entire first draft of this novel, and so each sentence and phrase offered to readers must’ve been written as deliberately as the careful steps Axl and Beatrice, the main characters, take across medieval England’s ruin-littered landscape.
The story tells us, straight away, that the main characters (along with everyone around them) cannot remember much of the past at all. There is little personal memory and still less communal or cultural memory. Because the bits and pieces each individual remembers might differ from what a friend or neighbor remembers, they simply don’t discuss the past. Beatrice and Axl are haunted, however, by the feeling they’ve forgotten something–a son. They set off to pay him a visit. This creates the unusual experience of getting to know these characters as they get to know themselves along their uncertain journey. As they meet more people and gather more information, readers see the first rift in the couple who, at the outset, were nearly a single unit. One values truth, knowledge, and memory at any cost while the other grows increasingly desperate to preserve a way of life nearly lost but protected at great price. How vital is memory to identity? Is mnemonic identity necessary for real love? Fans of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind will enjoy revisiting this question in an entirely new context.
Nearly every character in the book is conflicted but irrevocably tied to a single path, heightening the tragedies their actions may cause. One acknowledges that what he has sworn to do will see villages in flames, women raped, and children hanging from the trees, but the past tethers him to the act, and he must commit it. Memory, then, becomes a differentiator setting people apart and marking individuality but also a thief of free will and a prison. Here, we are powerless to determine our futures so long as we yoke ourselves to the past. The more firmly these characters grasp memory, the less choice they seem to have in how they use the information, until Axl fearfully understands what he can no longer forestall.
Ishiguro does leave a slender ray of hope at the end of The Buried Giant. The character who represents the next generation is asked to hold a particular memory close through all his days–the memory that some among his ostensible enemies were good to him once, the recollection that the “other” is not very different. We know he will soon witness the horrors of war, and this will be a difficult choice. What to remember? What to forget? We close the book hoping he will be the first to fully grasp the value of letting go of the past. This week, when movie web sites are peppered with Islamophobic insults and racial slurs following the release of American Sniper, that value is something we ought to consider, too.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf | 9780307271037 | March 3, 2015)