I just finished The Buried Giant yesterday. I read the whole thing over the course of a two week work-cation so the entire book is still fresh in my mind, which I much prefer to those times when I’m forced to read a book like this over a much longer time horizon.
So the novel. I was just on Goodreads and saw it has a 3.47/5 rating and am rather surprised. I found the book, much like Never Let Me Go and Remains of the Day, beautiful. Beautiful in its portrayal of the love between the two main characters – Axl and Beatrice (or “princess”, as Axl tenderly calls her). And here I’m not referring to romantic beauty of a youthful sort – like that depicted in most tear-jerking romantic films, or the sort of flawless beauty depicted on magazine covers. This book lets you go along on the journeys of a handful of people who have deep, time-worn, hopeful and yet pained human hearts. A journey where you bear witness to a short of tenderness (second time I’m using that word but it’s quite a good fit) between two old lovers that feels handmade and imperfect, with both deeply buried chambers of pain and areas of bright and simple light. And all that makes the story beautiful. It also makes you think something like: ah. So that is what the best sort of love can be.
But enough of me trying (and no doubt failing) to express the feeling the book created in me. The themes it engages with deserve serious reflection. Here, I’ll only highlight some of the main ones that interested me and leave it to in-person conversations over hot chocolate to discuss in greater detail.
Through the use of a fantastical land, shrouded in a mysterious mist that makes people (and perhaps even animals) lose access to their memories, the book creates a space for us to reflect on the nature of memory itself – its reliability, its construction, its purpose and use. It does this in the context of both our inter-personal relationships (e.g. family, romance) and as regards to the sort of collective memories of peoples (e.g., Britons versus the Saxons). Here are some thoughts I wrote down while reading:
- what do we make of romantic love where the parties cannot remember their shared past? Beatrice seemed to think remembering quite important, that without the discreet memory of the event that led to her feelings for Axl their love was thrown into some doubt.
- why do we care whether we can prove our love? And why do we think memory has anything to do with it?
- the idea of “never forget” and the hope that once we remember, we’ll know the truth of the matter seems constantly challenged throughout the book. Ishiguro subtly and without warning tells the same event from different perspectives, from people with different histories and memories going into the event, and we see that there is no there there. (my favorite version of this revolved around the discussion of the buildings at the monastery) That is, there is no single true characterization of what happened, let alone what it means. But if that’s right, then I return to my earlier question – why is memory so important to our belief in the realness of love we experience today? Certainly a narrative of a life is important for our sense of self (who is the me sitting here if I am suddenly stripped of my own life story), but the characters don’t seem as preoccupied with worries about the integrity of their own selfhood. This is much more about memory’s role in our relations with others.
- Can we apologize or ask for forgiveness for things we do not remember? Near the end of the book I was reminded of Luke 23:34. Jesus says from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” But when reading this book I’m not sure I understand what that sort of forgiveness looks like/ is doing. If someone does not know what they do – or, somewhat differently, if today they cannot remember what it is they once did – are you even forgiving them? And even if you are forgiving them, forgiving them for what? Is there blame to even be had there? Must there be blame before one can be forgiven? (to be clear, I had to look up the verse… and the fact it was Jesus who said it. But I did remember the line!).
- Is it beyond us to love a person while remembering everything? Is it beyond us to love or at least accept other groups of people while remembering our histories? (and here I think of the truth and reconciliation commission as an argument that it is possible, though even there it might be that new versions of memories are formed through that process, and that somehow the reconstruction of memory, or at least its recontexualization, is necessary for forgiveness and peace.)
Oh and one more thing. The US edition I got was published by Alfred A. Knoff as a Borzoi book, printed and bound by RR Donnelley, the book jacket was designed by Peter Mendelsund, and the endpaper art was created by Neil Gower. This is unquestionably the most gorgeous modern edition I can remember laying eyes on. I very much hope to see more books published with such care in the future. A real pleasure to read something so beautiful and fitting to the story itself.