Axl and Beatrice, two elderly Britons, are living out their days in a post-Arthurian England when they become obsessed with the idea of taking a trip to visit their long-departed son in his village. They embark on an arduous journey in which they encounter knights, warriors, monks, ogres, and even a dragon. Their trip is hampered by the fact that the whole country seems to be under a sort of spell. No one has much of a memory anymore. Axl and Beatrice don’t remember what their son looked like or why he left. All they really know about each other is that they have been together a long time and love each other.
Eventually, Axl and Beatrice get entangled in the competing quests of the Saxon warrior Wistan and the legendary knight Sir Gawain, nephew of Arthur. They discover the source of the collective amnesia afflicting the nation and attempt to solve it, even as they debate whether the recovered memories will be worth saving. What will happen to them when they can recall all the hurts they have suffered and inflicted? What ancient grievances could come roaring back to the surface?
Ishiguro is a fascinating and frustrating figure. Clearly he has a lot of deep thoughts about what memory is and how it operates, but the presentation here is bland and affectless in a way that makes it challenging to care much for Ishiguro’s message. Axl and Beatrice converse in protracted, repetitive dialogues that feel neither recognizably human nor period accurate. Everyone they meet talks the same way. The story gets bogged down in these endless discussions, while the actual events of the plot are frequently referred to only in retrospect.
This is the fifth Ishiguro novel I have read, and in all of them I’ve been impressed by his commitment to a bit. He seems to relish challenging himself with protagonists who make it impossible to tell a straightforward, entertaining story. A butler so repressed he doesn’t realize the chances he’s missing or what his service is going toward. A robot making assumptions about the world based purely on the data she can collect from her limited perspective. Here the protagonists don’t remember their own history, but still make their way in the world the best they can. Unfortunately, in The Buried Giant the reader’s frustration far outweighs the fascination Ishiguro’s genius can inspire.