Welcome to the discussion of The Buried Giant.
This post includes an introduction to the book without spoilers, and the discussion of chapters 1, 2, 3, and 4 included.
The second post will discuss chapter 5 till the end of Part I, and all Part II. The third and last will be all Part III until the end of the book, and we’ll talk about the whole book too.
This is my second time with this book, and I’m going to be careful to give you all an introduction without spoilers.
The Buried Giant was published in March 2015. I read it very close to its publication. This book presented me with more innovations and a very daring setting for some of his well known topics.
This book shows Ishiguro’s Brittishness, I believe. Or maybe just his love for the Arthurian world, for legends. As I relate everything to Don Quijote, it was interesting to me to see how Cervantes revolutionized the history of the novel, by writing a novel about a common man who reads chivalry books, instead of writing one of those romances. A book that talks about those reading the romances, a book that is not another romance, but that contains romances. Such as when Velazquez painted Las Meninas, and painted a painter painting a picture, instead of just a picture. Centuries later, we have Ishiguro travelling back in time, not only in the setting he chose, but in his technique. The Buried Giant feels like an old legend, but it also feels modern in a good sense.
Context. If we don’t have it, it’s probable we don’t have anywhere to hold and to like this book. We may have it, and still find it difficult to take to it. Where does that factor that will make us love or loath a book such as this reside? Hard to tell. I believe that those who grew up loving Arthur, legends, and those at ease with undefined and ambiguous settings, the nostalgic, the ones who love to wander and wonder, will do well with it. It was not love at first sight for me. But, as I age, and as I read books a second time, I’m being rewarded with this protracted effect. This second time, the book rooted deeper. I felt the rush of being familiar with Beatrice, Axl, and the rest, and I caught on much more than the first time, when I desperately wanted to get to the last page to have many answers to the questions I kept asking through the book.
This second time, it wasn’t so much about what Ishiguro could tell me, the questions he could satisfy with answers, but all that the book stirred in me. Looking back now I’ve closed it, it’s quite amazing all the links to our collective knowledge and imagination we have as readers he’s planted in the book, (resonances with other books such as Princess and the Goblins, myths and legends, fairy tales, ties with his own other books, :), with the mentioned Arthurian legends.), his books cause an avalanche in my mind as I close the last page. His books are as much or more delightful to be discussed, as they are to be read.
***End of the introduction.
Just in the first page, Ishiguro tells us how we should read the book, or how the people at that time lived. They are at a time of monsters and ogres, but they are not too worried about those, since those things in life pertaining to their survival keep them occupied. Sometimes an ogre takes a child, but they are philosophical about it, Ishiguro tells us. They don’t have control over that, so they accept it.
We meet Beatrice and Axl, an old married couple, and the village they live in. We soon know about the problems they have remembering. Beatrice wants to leave the village and go to their son’s village to see him. The journey will be a dangerous one, since they don’t seem to know very well were they are going. We learn that Saxons and Britons live in a precarious peace. Beatrice and Axl are Britons, and whenever they cross or stop by a Saxon village, they don’t know what they may encounter.
Before they leave though, there’s already an ambiguous recollection of this couple’s situation or status in the village. Are they respected, or ousted? Their conversations also show us a couple of confused persons that have troubles remembering the past, or even interpreting the present.
This second time, I even thought if this book had not the idea of what happens to us all when we reach an old age. If we are that which we can remember of our life, what happens when others, our spouse, can’t remember much of our life together, whether we have loved each other or not, do we then disappear as individuals?
We have the incident with the candle, (which represents light, clarity), which was also given to Beatrice by the children of the village, but their leader doesn’t allow them to keep it. The mysterious lady with curative powers. The confusion on what’s real and dreamed of. Finally, they set up on their journey.
Both times though, there was this passage I remembered well. Once they start to walk, Ishiguro paints a tender picture of this couple. Axl goes after Beatrice. The explanation of why this is, surprised me. Ishiguro says that if any danger comes upon them from their back, Axl would be there to protect Beatrice from such, (instead of continuing unaware of her falling into a snare, or being assaulted in the night from behind.) It’s so tender, the way Axl is always asking Beatrice, “are you alright, Princess?”
They get to a villa in ruins, and there, in a building, they meet with a boatsman and an old lady. This encounter felt very Greek to me, the boatsman, the river, crossing it together only if you can prove love for each other. The old lady is such an ugly or mean person, but she instills doubts on Beatrice and Axl about the nature of the boatsman, -who seemed to be friendly and fair. She claims to have been cheated by him, and unable to cross the river with her husband. She is also being cruel to a rabbit she says she’s bringing to him as an offering, -which she meant to offer once but now she’s doing every night in which looks like a curse. The whole scene mysterious and also crude.
Back on their journey, they arrive at a Saxon village. There is an atmosphere of uncertainty. Not only are they strangers, who speak a different language, (Briton), but there’s threats in the village that make the inhabitants hostile. The villagers are keeping vigilance expecting the attack of a monster that has taken a boy from them. Axl and Beatrice are threading dangerous waters. They meet a man called Ivor, who is a Briton married to a Saxon and speaks the couple’s language. A warrior of the village that confides in them that the man in their posts forget what they are doing there, and sometimes even abandon the posts. Exchanging thoughts, they both say how this forgetting things is happening in both their villages. Ivor tells them he and his wife blame this forgetting of things on the midst.
Axl notices his wife limps. She seems to be in pain, -the hip or leg. He suggest they go to see a monk called Jonus who is told to know how to heal people. Ivor tells them Jonus lives in Querig’s country. Querig is a she-dragon, but Ivor explains that she lives in the mountains and she’s rarely a threat, and he complains that it’s a pity she remains unslained, although there’s an old knight from the times of Arthur committed to do the task, but who has not given the beast a moment of anxiety. Here it comes my favorite passage of this first part. Talking about the cause of the midst that impedes them to remember, Ivor tells Axl about his exchange with a stranger that morning:
…Our strange affliction interested him greatly, and he questioned me again and again on the matter. And then he ventured something I dismissed at the time, but have since much pondered. The stranger thought it may be God himself had forgotten much from our pasts, events far distant, events of the same day. And if a thing is not in God’s mind, then what chance of it remaining in those of mortal men?”
Beatrice stared at him. “Can such a thing be possible, Ivor? We’re each of us his dear child. Would God really forget what we have done and what’s happened to us?”
“My question exactly, Mistress Beatrice, and the stranger could offer no answer.
In the meantime, a village warrior finds the boy that had been snatched by a monster, but as soon as he brings the boy back, the villagers seem to also forget about the incident, and the boy is strangely received, with some coldness, remarks Beatrice, that makes her feel something is amiss.
The warrior meets the couple, and there’s another tense exchange between him and Axl, -the way Wistan, the warrior, scrutinizes Axl. Eventually, Axl tells him about their plans to visit their son in his village. Wistan tells them about the boy and what happened last night among the villagers (when Beatrice and Axl were nearly assaulted.) The boy returned, but he has a bite. The superstitions people have make them uneasy about the boy. Beatrice asks Axl if the midst maybe that God is upset with them, or maybe ashamed of something they did in the past?
“What on this earth could we have done to make God so ashamed?
“I don’t know, Axl. But it’s surely not something you and I ever did, for he’s always loved us well. If we were to pray to him, pray and ask for him to remember at least a few of the things most precious to us, who knows, he may hear and grant us our wish.”
Chapter four ends with Beatrice and Axl, the boy, Edwin, and Wistan, the warrior, sojourning together. The couple to find their son’s village, and Wistan trying to find a community where to leave Edwin.
This first third of the book is packed with events, full of riddles and double meanings, and I experienced some confusion myself, such as Beatrice and Axl. The tone is one of sadness, of memories lost, time gone too fast. I felt a pang of pain for this couple who, late in life, and with physical limitations, feel compelled to set up on a difficult journey in search of closure, of answers.