Friday, 18 August 2017

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

While I was reading this book, I was swept along, absolutely enchanted. I wasn't sure where it was going, and it was entirely unlike anything I'd read before, and I was loving it. Now I'm done, and I'm perhaps a little perplexed about where we ended up, or what it all meant, but the journey was so enjoyable I would have a hard time regretting the ride. And perhaps the feeling like the meaning is a wisp of fog just out of reach fits very well with the book as a whole.

In the way that life has of handing you little synchronicities, I have just started working on learning a new Tarot deck, one that came my way when a coworker said that she'd had it for a while and would never use it, would I like it? I gave it a good home, and am now finally settling down to familiarize myself, in a long process that will take me months to a year before I feel anywhere near comfortable enough with it to read for others using that deck. The synchronicity comes in because it's the Arthurian Tarot, so I was reading The Buried Giant while learning that the Knight of Pentacles in this deck is Sir Bors, and the Emperor is, predictably, Arthur. Or last night, when the card that came out of the deck for me to think about was Stone Five, a card of a standing stone in a barren field during a blizzard, with no shelter and nowhere to hide from the elements that batter it.

What I'm getting at, in addition to my excitement at embarking on learning a new Tarot deck, is Arthuriana, and trying to interact with it in a way that is open to interpretation and movement of meaning, which I feel this process has in common with Ishiguro's work. The Buried Giant is set in post-Arthur Britain, with Briton and Saxons settlements side by side, and a mist over the land that shrouds memories and dulls disagreements, paralyzing and soothing at the same time.

This is the story of an old Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice, who are unhappy in the community in which they live, cold and no longer allowed to have candles in their small dwelling. They resolve to walk to their son's village, which is, they're sure, not that far away. Most of their past has faded in the mist that surrounds the land, but nevertheless, they set out.

On the way, they  meet a Saxon warrior, a boy who his village believed to have been bitten by an ogre, a monastery with some very odd practices, and, oh yes, Sir Gawain. The warrior is there to kill the dragon whose breath covers the land and causes the amnesia, but Gawain claims that quest as his own.

In between moments of forgetfulness, vague hints of the shared past of Axl and Beatrice emerge, worries that they would not be as dear to each other with full memories as without, and this is a microcosm of the larger theme of the impact of forgetfulness on the world. Would it solve divisions of tribe and history? Would it take away more than it gives? Would people still be whole people without substantial parts of their memories?

What we see may not be warfare, but it's far from free from petty suspicion and even mob justice. The boy bitten by the ogre is almost killed by villagers who suspect that he may turn into an ogre himself. They are suspicious of strangers, but know not why.

What could be bad enough to want a cloud of forgetfulness to settle over the land? Ishiguro carefully does not say, but knowledge of the Arthur myth and several hints in the book lead in a certain direction. Look for the worst thing King Arthur is ever reputed to have done, and you have a place to start.

The question I'm left with there more? I liked this book a whole lot, and yet I wonder if I missed something. Were Axl and Beatrice supposed to be larger figures from the Arthurian myth than is completely obvious? There's a reference to adultery, which leads me down one path, and a bit at the end about recognizing the boatman who is going to ferry them across the water to and island. I just don't feel like I know, and I'm not sure if I should know.

But I'm okay if I don't. This is strangely about memory collective and personal, about old age and love, about life coming to a close and what comes after, all in elegant prose that was delightful to drift through.

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