Ishiguro’s newest novel is a brilliant undertaking: on one level, a simple story about an elderly couple seeking lost memories and their long-departed son, on another, it is a post-Arthurian adventure story of knights, dragons, ogres, and bloody warfare, with sly touches of Cervantes, Beowulf, Dante’s Inferno, and other classics thrown in. But ultimately, The Buried Giant is a profound allegory on the state of the world today.
The plot begins simply enough in the period following the end of King Arthur’s reign. The wars between Briton and Saxon appear to be over, and they live together in an uneasy sort of peace. An aging pair of Britons, Axl and Beatrice, live in a cave-like burrow along with a loose-knit community which barely ekes out a living from crops and animal husbandry. Axl and Beatrice have been denied candles to light their nights, suggesting their decreasing worth to the community as they grow older, and they are plagued with faint memories of a son they once had.
They are also vaguely aware that no one in the community holds onto their memories, whether long- or short-term ones, and decide to go find their missing son in a village several days away, and to try to fill in the vast gaps in their lives and explain the mist of forgetfulness they all suffer. They end up traveling with a Saxon warrior on a quest, and a fugitive young boy who has been bitten by a dragon. They barely escape with their lives from numerous adventures, and slowly begin to recover memories which redefine their relationship.
Over it all, Ishiguro’s simple quiet writing style, deliberately lacking in color and warmth, leaves his readers in a mist of their own, convinced that something more profound is happening but unable to put a finger on it until the end, and even then…. I found myself wondering at several points along the way whether I wanted to continue reading, but something compelled me onward, and I’m glad I did, because now that I’ve finished The Buried Giant, I can’t stop thinking about it and its buried commentary on today’s world. What comes to mind—well, my mind at least—is the never-ending cycle of bloodshed in the Middle East, the cynical recruitment of child soldiers in Africa, society’s intolerance of those different from ourselves and its abandonment of our elderly as “useless eaters,” even though we all promised ourselves Never Again!
Ishiguro also makes us look at ourselves and our relationships with our loved ones, and at the lies–the little white ones and sometimes the not so little ones–that we try to bury in the sands of time. I suspect that readers will continue to extract precious nuggets from this novel. While The Buried Giant won’t leave you feeling happy or even satisfied, it will leave you distinctly uncomfortable—and sometimes that is much more valuable.