The Buried Giant, Memory, and the Past

by Derek Neal

In last month’s column, I wrote about the opening pages of Philip Roth’s Nemesis, and how Roth creates the backdrop of 1940’s Newark upon which the events of the novel play out. I’m using the words “backdrop” and “play out” intentionally, as these pages really do function as a sort of stage set that provides the context for the story which follows. This kind of storytelling is, I suppose, somewhat traditional or old fashioned. What it suggests is that the characters are products of their environment, and it’s important to explain the context in which they exist if the characters are to be understood. The setting of the story can also be seen as its own character, such that we must have a grasp of 1940’s Newark to comprehend the protagonist of the story, Bucky Cantor, because his understanding of the world and how he moves through it, his hopes, his dreams, and his fears, have been shaped, or to use a stronger word, created, by the fact of being born and growing up in Newark, New Jersey in the middle of the first half of the 20th century.

This may seem obvious, but in foregrounding the setting of the story, it also goes against the idea that people are unique, ahistorical individuals, which seems to be an increasingly common contemporary assumption. Nemesis makes this point explicit by placing the narrator in the present, or at least in the future in terms of the events of the story, and then having him relate what has taken place in the past. This is an acknowledgement that to attempt to tell a story about a certain time period from within that time period would in some ways be deceitful and anachronistic, running the risk of assuming that people in past times thought about themselves and the world in the same way that we do, or mapping a contemporary morality onto the past. Because it would be nearly impossible to faithfully recreate a past consciousness (although this is what any story about the past attempts to do), the practical solution is to frame the story from the viewpoint of a narrator in the present and admit defeat from the outset. This serves the purpose of recognizing the futility of the attempt while still trying to achieve the goal of fully recreating a different time and place.

Of course, many novels and writers do not share the concerns I’m outlining here and choose to simply tell a story about the past in the third person via an unacknowledged omniscient narrator. This is fine, too, and it can certainly be done well, but it is a fundamentally different type of story in that it doesn’t deal with the phenomenon of memory. It seems to me that when a novel makes explicit its concern with memory, it immediately adds pathos and intrigue. What happened before to make the characters the way they are now? Can we believe in the narrator’s recollection of what happened years and years ago? Why has this story been isolated and chosen as the necessary one out of the miasma of time?

The contemporary master of this form of storytelling is, to my mind, Kazuo Ishiguro. Most of his novels deal with a character trying to come to terms with something that has happened in their past: in The Remains of the Day, the butler Stevens reconsiders the political actions of Lord Darlington in the 1920’s and 30’s from the vantage point of the 1950’s, as well as his own choices in his personal and professional life; in A Pale View of Hills, Etsuko thinks back to her younger life in Japan from the perspective of old age in England; in An Artist of the Floating World, Masuji Ono examines his actions before World War II from a post-war context. Perhaps Ishiguro’s best novel, The Buried Giant, takes the themes of memory and history and places them within the context of Arthurian legend. Readers of Ishiguro might be surprised I claim The Buried Giant to be his best novel, and to be honest, it is a difficult choice, but what distinguishes this novel from the others is that Ishiguro is finally able to provide a logical explanation for the fallibility of his characters’ memory.

In his other novels, such as the ones I’ve mentioned above, the unreliability of the narrators can be understood as being a result of their refusal to accept or admit to past errors, or to use a contemporary shibboleth, as a result of trauma. This explanation is acceptable enough, but as the setting of The Buried Giant is that of a fairy tale, it allows Ishiguro to provide what amounts to an objective, visually identifiable explanation for his characters’ memory loss. This is a spoiler for those who haven’t read the novel, but the characters cannot recall the past due to an enchanted mist that shrouds their village and is intended to preserve peace by erasing the crimes of the past. In the same way that a disease can be discovered as being caused by a virus and not a spirit or a spell, thus providing clarity to a mystery, The Buried Giant provides answers to Ishiguro’s main concerns of memory and history, and for this reason seems to be a distillation of his literary output down to its essence.

Ishiguro opens The Buried Giant with the voice of a narrator from the present looking back to the past. The narrator seems to function in a similar way to that of the one in Nemesis, as he does have an identity and occasionally speaks in the first person, although it is easy to forget this as the story moves along. In both cases, the narrator’s true identity is only revealed near the end of the book. However, The Buried Giant is a bit more ambiguous than Nemesis: either the narrator is intentionally deceptive about himself, or the revelation at the end of the story is actually a shifting of perspective from an unnamed omniscient narrator to a character in the book. In any case, the novel begins like this: “You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated.”

A characteristic of Ishiguro is that he is unfailingly precise with his verb tenses, often making an effort to be either clear or purposefully mysterious about the sequence in which things have happened. Here he writes that you “would have searched” a long time for winding lanes or tranquil meadows as opposed to simply stating that “there weren’t” any winding lanes or tranquil meadows. The effect is that the reader is put on unstable footing. It seems that a part of the sentence has been erased, yet its meaning is still implied. The sentence is saying, “If you had been there,” you would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated. Ah, but we weren’t there, and could we have been there? It’s unclear. Did this time and place that the narrator is describing really exist?

The paragraph continues as the narrator says: “Most of the roads left by the Romans would by then have become broken or overgrown, often fading into wilderness.” Again, by writing “would have become” instead of “were,” a measure of doubt and uncertainty creeps into the story. Already, in the verb tenses alone, the narrator’s memory is revealing itself to be unstable. There are many more examples in the following paragraphs, including one where the narrator speculates that people of this ancient time “would have regarded” the appearance of ogres as normal occurrences.

Throughout this opening section and at the beginnings of following chapters, the narrator continually reminds us that we are not, in fact, in the past, but are viewing the past through the lens of the present. This is just a minor, subtle detail, but the effect on the mood and atmosphere of the story is large. The narrator tells us that the two main characters of the novel, an elderly couple named Axl and Beatrice, “lived an isolated life, but in those days few were “isolated” in any sense we would understand.” At the beginning of the following chapter, the narrator informs us that, “In a village like this, many items necessary for their journey—blankets, water flasks, tinder—were communally owned and securing their use required much bargaining with neighbours.” My last example comes from the beginning of the third chapter, as the narrator explains that, “The Saxon village, viewed from a distance and a certain height, would have been something more familiar to you as a “village” than Axl and Beatrice’s warren.”

It is as if the narrator is a guide, somewhat like an anthropologist, who is explaining to us how this distant and lost culture lived. He must remind us that we cannot assume things about their lifestyle because they lived in ways that we have forgotten; in fact, even the use of quotation marks around “isolated” and “village” indicates that the words we use to describe our world would not have made sense to them, as they would not have had a reference point for our words. In this way, Ishiguro emphasizes the importance of place and time on the consciousness of his characters, while simultaneously calling into question the validity of the story by casting it in the context of a memory. This is, I think, the key to Ishiguro’s novels, and it receives its fullest expression in The Buried Giant.