The New York Times “Paperback Row” recently featured Kazuo Ishiguro’s fable of an old man and woman as they travel their last journey together in The Buried Giant, triggering my search for the book. Although the story is set in post-Arthurian England, when the Anglo-Saxons conquered the Britons, this strange tale with ogres and dragons holds analogies for today.
As the story follows Axl and Beatrice’s journey to find their son, they meet a knight, a warrior, and a young man – all on a quest to kill the dragon. The dragon’s breath, under a spell by Merlin, has obscured all their memories of the past – most of all, the horrors of war and the bitterness between the Saxons and the Britons. Although the story reads like a fairy tale, Ishiguro, whose Remains of the Day won the Man Booker Prize, numbs the reader into wondering about the simplicity of the characters and the plot. At times, Monty Python’s “Spamalot” seemed to seep into the dialogue. And the universal historical amnesia almost becomes universal hysterics.
When Axl and Beatrice meet a boatman along the way, he advises them about the final journey of death each must make across the water alone. Only a few make the journey together in the same boat; those who can prove to the boatman that their love is perfect and true, without bitterness or jealousy or shame, can cross the water together. They are determined they will do so, despite what the clearing of the amnesia-producing mist might help them recall about infidelities and cruelty to each other. They need to remember their past, but they are afraid of what those memories might bring them.
James Wood, in his comparison of The Buried Giant to another of Ishiguro’s books for The New Yorker, focuses on the mist that takes away memories, both good and bad.
“The mist functions, then, a bit like one of the possible replies to the great question of theodicy: to reduce or eliminate suffering, free will would have had to be reduced or eliminated. Yet if we recoil from actual suffering, we also shudder at the prospect of a world without the freedom to do good or bad.”
Maybe so, but the elderly couple was my focus, and their interaction to each other as they grew older and frailer along the journey. They have reached the age when their minds hold only a fog of memories – names, people, and milestones in their lives are no longer clear. In the final chapter Ishiguro reveals who Axl and Beatrice really are and where they are really going.
I had hoped for a happy romantic ending but Neil Gaiman’s review for the New York Times said it so well:
“…no matter how well we love, no matter how deeply, we will always be fallible and human, and that for every couple who are aging together, one or the other of them — of us — will always have to cross the water, and go on to the island ahead and alone…”
The final scene left me with a sense of melancholy and brought me to tears.