Everyone is reading Kazuo Ishiguro nowadays, the 2017 Nobel laureate in literature. In my defense I will say that I read two of his books prior to him receiving the Nobel. “The Buried Giant” is my third Ishiguro novel. And it’s a masterpiece.
The setting is England in the early Middle Ages, shortly after the legendary King Arthur passed away. Britons and Saxons are living more or less peacefully with each other, but still in separate villages. An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, set out from their village on a journey to find their long-lost son. The entire population seems to be suffering from memory problems. The past is forgotten. Fragments of memories occasionally pop up, but mostly it’s a haze.
On their journey, Axl and Beatrice meet a Saxon warrior with his young protégé and an old Arthurian knight. They journey together, encountering along the way ogres, pixies and other mythical creatures. They appear to be on a joint quest to find and kill a she-dragon that is suspected to be responsible for the “mist” that causes people to forget the past. But, as it turns out, they all have different goals and interests, which slowly unravel as the story progresses.
This is not a fantasy novel. Nor is it a historical one. It is a novel about human beings and what motivates them. Mostly, it’s a novel about love. The love between Axl and Beatrice. The love between the Saxon warrior and his young companion. The love of the knight to his mission. Ishiguro reconstructs Middle Ages England through subtle details rather than through explicit descriptions. For example, to remind us of the state of hygiene at the time, a woman is described as not possessing the “smell of stale excrement the way most people did”.
As befits a master story teller, we do not discover who (or what) the “buried giant” is until the very end of the book. The ending leaves us pondering about the meaning of love, the ability to let go, the power of memories, and perhaps the unspoken quality and necessity of forgetfulness.