10 February 2022

The giant lie in The Buried Giant


I was thinking how The Buried Giant was an elegant variation on Kazuo Ishiguro's (KI's) themes: memory, forgetting, historical wrongs. However, he had pulled the rug from under the feet of his characters. Instead of unreliable narrators recalling their past, he enshrouded his ancient English world with a literal mist where anyone under it was under the spell of forgetting. Unreliable through and through, and the small chinks of memory creeping in were as precious as madeleines.

In the current post-truth world order, of course, that mist was already enveloping our consciousness. The racists and xenophobes in us would hardly flinch at the vocabulary of hate permeating the stratosphere. Some of us gullible enough would stand behind leaders and dictators (and dictators' sons) and preach the gospel of unity and unification and empty platitudes. Even Sir Gawain to the end held steadfast to his loyalty to King Arthur's reign despite the stain of colonialism and genocide that marked all conquests and wars.



A passage from the novel:

Edwin appeared to comprehend the soldier’s wishes, if not his actual words, for he left the mare and came to join Wistan. As he did so, the soldier [Gawain] adjusted slightly the position of his horse. Axl, noticing this, understood immediately that the soldier was maintaining a particular angle and distance between himself and his charges that would give him the greatest advantage in the event of sudden conflict. Before, with Wistan standing where he was, the head and neck of the soldier’s own horse would momentarily have obstructed his first swing of the sword, giving Wistan vital time either to unsettle the horse, or run to its blind side, where the sword’s reach was diminished in scope and power by having to be brought across the body. But now the small adjusting of the horse had made it practically suicidal for an unarmed man, as Wistan was, to storm the rider. The soldier’s new position seemed also to have taken expert account of Wistan’s mare, loose some distance behind the soldier’s back. Wistan was now unable to run for his horse without describing a wide curve to avoid the sword side of the rider, making it a near-certainty he would be run through from behind before reaching his destination. 

This passage came after the old man Axl denied knowing anything about soldiery to the warrior Wistan. Wistan questioned him three times, I think, and the old man refused to acknowledge his military past at every time, like Peter denying Jesus thrice over. Yet from the passage alone it was all too evident to the reader that Axl was in his prime a full pledged soldier. 

The third person point of view shifted its subject from one person (Edwin) to another (Gawain) before alighting to Axl. It was apparent from Axl's perception of slight shifts and nuances in the fighters' postures that he knew swordsmanship and had battle experience. The carefully calibrated phrases, the efficient way of anticipating a fatal curve, and the way the position of the horse was considered: it was a well choreographed blocking of characters amid a tense situation.

Axl was silent throughout his observation of the military posture of both the soldier Gawain and the warrior Wistan. Yet the free indirect thought (not speech, because silent), made him a liar. Did he deny his past unknowingly (because of the mist) or knowingly (because of voluntary forgetfulness). KI's mist was a convenient shroud to cover up the faint stirrings of memory so that uncomfortable things that happened in the past remain hidden. So we were still in the territory of unreliability after all. The mist just intensified what Axl was trying his best not to remember. Clearly there was guilt behind his conviction to deny his past and happily forget. Early on, the reader might be flagged that this is a tale told by liars inside a mist and by soldiers with shady pasts but the reader was not sure anymore if the forgetfulness was due to the mist or a forced deception of the self. The construct of the mist was obscuring everything and it's hard to differentiate what was forgotten, half-remembered, imagined, or knowingly denied.

The dragon held the key to banishing the mist, and the cast of characters (the old couple Axl and Beatrice, Wistan the warrior, Edwin the warrior-in-the-making, and Gawain the knight) ventured off and journeyed to the dragon's lair. KI wanted to imbue each character with a redemption arc so he supplied a back story for each and described their conflicting motivations even as their selfish/personal interests collided. Along the way, then novelist opened up debates about self-imposed forgetfulness and the uses and manipulations of memory. 

What is the true cost of remembering? Was it okay to just forgive and forget past atrocities (or offenses) so everyone can just move on with their lives? Just how grave must the atrocities (and offenses) be so that bygones could not be bygones? What combination of wrongs and circumstances can make it justified to be silent about the past?

Imagine a character in a novel with a perfect memory (read: Aira), one who never forgets up to a certain timestamp (read: Handke). Fickle memory had no place in its world. Dementia was but a memory(!) Such a world fails through and through since one could not escape the full auditing of life and history. The mechanism of perfect and imperfect memories was a promising subject to pin down in novels, fantasy or otherwise. The characters in these novels almost always failed to prosper beyond the reckoning of the past. The novelists either forgot the perfect ending or were quite content to an open-ended and unfinished resolution.

KI's insertion of fantastical beasts into his novel was not a trick of sorts. It was the great big lie: a telling metaphor. He was the spin doctor of reality. He opened up an uncomfortable inquiry into domestic and historical iniquities and infamies. Must a dragon be slain first for memory to return and a nation to wake up from the totalitarian deep shit of self-deception? Why is it we could not see beyond the big lie in front of us and keep deluding ourselves when it comes to the historical, well documented atrocities committed by a dictator and his family? #NeverAgain #NeverForget 


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