By JESS ENGEBRETSON
Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is a story about digging up the past. The novel imagines a 5th century land — what it would mean to call it Britain is one of the rich questions it encourages the reader to reflect on — wrapped in a mysterious mist of forgetfulness. That mist, we gradually learn, obscures a terrible history of violence. The novel’s protagonists, Beatrice and Axl, are an elderly couple who live in a post-Arthurian landscape populated by ogres, dragons, and other menacing creatures. At the novel’s start, they manage to recall that they have a son in a nearby village, and set out to visit him. Along the way, they encounter a powerful Saxon warrior, a possibly cursed child, and a creaky knight who turns out to be an elderly Sir Gawain (somewhat declined from his glory days in Arthur’s court). As the group travels, memories of past Briton-Saxon wars begin to return in hazy, confused glimpses. Gradually, the reader comes to understand that the land’s current peace is grounded in its inhabitants’ collective amnesia, represented as the mysterious mist of forgetfulness. By the novel’s end, that mist has been dispelled, memory has slowly returned, and long-buried bones have been unearthed.
One of the most striking aspects of Ishiguro’s text is that it treats this act of remembrance with profound ambivalence. On the one hand, The Buried Giant has an obvious investment in the processes by which a lost history of atrocity might be recovered. Yet the novel also implies that the recovery of Briton treachery will trigger Saxon revenge, continuing a cycle of violence that will end only with the total destruction of one side or the other. Ishiguro’s novel does not stake an obvious claim on behalf of either memory or forgetting, and one of its many puzzles is the question of how we ought to value the recovery of painful memories — especially those we know may spark future violence.
One way into this question is via the figure of Ishiguro’s narrator, a slippery fellow who flits in and out of view over the course of the novel. Ishiguro does not reveal the identity of his narrator until the novel’s last chapter, when we discover that he is the boatman who, in the novel’s final scene, ferries Beatrice across the water to a mysterious island that may represent death. The boatman is one of the book’s more enigmatic characters, a sort of Charon figure who seems to exist outside of mortal time. One surprise the novel offers is that the boatman’s ability to take the (very) long view allows him, and us, to contrast the distant past (Axl and Beatrice’s world) with something close to present-day England. That juxtaposition, in turn, produces a valorization of the present that implicitly condones the violence that produced it. The structure of the novel, in other words, invites us to focus on the pleasantness of contemporary England rather than on the grim events that are its antecedents.
Because Ishiguro’s narrator so effectively displaces attention from himself, it’s easy to read this view as the novel’s stance. But I don’t think that’s quite right; instead, I want to suggest that this bias toward forgetting is a product of the boatman’s unique vantage point. As a quasi-supernatural creature, the boatman views history on a very long time scale — and this is not a position that the novel expects its (human) readers to consistently occupy. I will argue, therefore, that, as readers, we are in fact invited to critique the boatman’s view — and that Ishiguro does this by including us among the audience to which the novel is explicitly addressed, the mysterious “you” that flits throughout the novel. This “you” initially seems to address the reader — but as we later discover, it also addresses the great anonymous mass of the dead, the victims of atrocity both past and present. By grouping the reader with the victims of past violence, the novel ultimately positions the reader with others who share a human perspective, those who do not have the luxury of operating on a time scale of millennia. And by framing the reader as part of the boatman’s audience, Ishiguro subjects the boatman’s tale to our evaluation — transforming the figure most responsible for judging others’ stories into the one whose tale is judged.
One of the most striking aspects of the novel’s opening is the narrator’s strong emphasis on the historicity of his story’s setting. From its very first sentence, The Buried Giant emphatically articulates the gap between present-day England and the distant past that is our setting. “You would have searched a long time,” the novel begins, “for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated” (3). In the place of the charming, tame English landscape with which the reader is presumably familiar, Ishiguro’s narrator sketches a bleak and threatening scene. In the second sentence, we are informed that the land is “desolate,” marked only with “rough hewn paths over craggy hills or bleak moorland” (3). By the third sentence, we encounter ruined infrastructure; by the fourth sentence, ogres (4). “One wonders what desperation led them to settle in such gloomy spots [near ogres],” the narrator muses — before acknowledging that ogres are the least of these people’s problems: “in those days there was so much else to worry about” (3). The phrase “in those days” is particularly significant, inviting us to notice the distance that separates our world from theirs. Indeed, the entire first paragraph is peppered with phrases that mark temporal disjuncture: “people then,” “in those days,” “by then,” “still,” etc. (3). The effect is to frame Axl and Beatrice’s world in comparison to the reader’s world; our immersion in this new setting is constantly interrupted by reminders of how different the 5th century is from the 21st.
And not only different — worse. Ishiguro’s narrator leaves the reader in little doubt that tranquil meadows are preferable to craggy hills, just as grazing sheep are preferable to marauding ogres. This sentiment is perhaps most vividly articulated at the end of the novel’s fourth paragraph, as the narrator wraps up his initial scene-setting. “I am sorry to paint such a picture of our country at the time,” he closes, “but there you are” (5). Underpinning this gently regretful tone is an assumption of historical progress, one that seems so straightforward that many readers will barely notice it on a first read. Of course it’s better not to worry about pixies and dragons and evil spirits. Of course the world of central heating is preferable to the world of chilly, candleless warrens. In the context of the first chapter’s world-building, these inferences feel obvious and unremarkable: just a useful way to orient present-day readers to the unfamiliar world the narrator asks us to inhabit.
By the time we are deep into the novel, however, the implicit valorization of the present takes on a more troubling cast. For as The Buried Giant unfolds, we come to understand that the story we’re reading is, among other things, the history of the obliteration of a people. The Saxon warrior Wistan tells Axl and Beatrice at the novel’s end that the coming Saxon conquest will wholly destroy the Britons and their culture. “This will become a new land, a Saxon land,” he predicts, “with no more trace of your people’s time here than a flock or two of sheep wandering the hills untended” (297). Neither the conquest nor the future “Saxon land” is depicted in the novel; they are left to hang, threateningly, over the story’s close. Through the narrator’s eyes, the “Saxon land” that Wistan envisions is precisely the present-day England with which the novel opens: the pleasant, cheerful countryside of winding lanes and tranquil meadows. The novel is thus structured around a kind of bait-and-switch. The narrator begins by inviting us to appreciate today’s England — and then, our sympathies for the present in place, methodically shows us the bones that lie “sheltered” — in Gawain’s words — beneath that “pleasant green carpet” (286). By the novel’s end, we have come to recognize that bucolic land as the product of what Wistan claims will be genocidal violence.
The structure of the novel, in other words, raises a provocative question: how do we respond to the fact that the relatively pleasant world we live in is produced by violence we would never want to condone? As the narrator of The Buried Giant presents it, the choice we face is between amnesia (Gawain’s preference) and future atrocity (Wistan’s preferece). There is no real vision in this novel of a form of historical memory that would heal, rather than inflame, past wounds. We could argue, of course, that Ishiguro’s narrator sets up a false dichotomy here: that there is a way to reject historical forgetting without legitimizing a new cycle of violence. But if we do provisionally accept the choices the novel offers, then we need to take seriously the possibility that “forgive and forget” might, in fact, be the best approach to dealing with past atrocity. And because the narrator’s voice so strongly establishes a sense of contemporary England as a pleasant, peaceful land, we are particularly conscious of all that we have now — all that we fear to lose. Taking this very long view, the view from the tranquil meadow, allows us to conclude that, in effect, it all worked out in the end. It is this sense of the preciousness of what we have now that allows us to accept the painful price — amnesia — that Ishiguro’s text would have us pay.
That, anyway, is a preliminary reading of The Buried Giant‘s take on historical memory. In the rest of this essay, I’ll argue that several of Ishiguro’s other structural choices invite us to question this reading. Most significantly, I want to focus on the role of the narrator — a figure who significantly shapes the way we understand Axl and Beatrice’s story, yet who does not himself come into view until the novel’s very last chapter. Particularly in the first chapter, Ishiguro takes care to alert the us to the fact that our story is filtered through the perspective of this unspecified narrator: “I would say….” “As I said,…” “I do not mean…” “I might point out here…” (4, 5, 7, 29). Yet as the novel progresses, these “I”s become more and more sporadic — disappearing entirely from much of the middle section of the book. The more fully immersed we are in the story, the more easily we can forget about its narrator.
Only in the novel’s final chapter does this mysterious “I” emphatically return — and it is only then that we realize that this speaker who has structured our story is, in fact, another character: the boatman who, at the novel’s end, rows Beatrice across the water. The boatman is a sort of Charon-figure whose job is to ferry souls from life into death, figured in this novel as an island “of strange qualities” (306). A key part of the boatman’s job involves the telling of stories: he asks both Axl and Beatrice to tell him about their lives together, just as (the novel suggests) he asks all couples, and perhaps all passengers, to give an accounting of themselves. We can imagine that the boatman understands what makes a compelling story — they are, after all, the coin of his realm — and in this sense he makes for a natural guide to Ishiguro’s narrative.
Yet there is something unsettling about the belated revelation of our narrator’s identity. Readers with experience of Ishiguro’s previous novels will be instinctively cautious about uncritically accepting the narrator’s worldview — and even trusting readers can hardly miss the repeated warnings about the boatman’s reliability. Early in the novel, the old woman in the villa warns the couple against trusting the boatman’s stories: he is a “sly one,” she claims, who will “dare to deceive you” (40).  In the novel’s final scene, Axl, too, is deeply suspicious of “boatmen and their ways” (315). When Beatrice tries to convince him to trust the stranger, he reminds her that they’ve “often heard of their [boatmen’s] sly tricks” (316). And the boatmen himself anticipates Axl’s suspicion, asking, ” can it be…you suspect some foul trickery? Do you fear I’ll not return for you?” (315). Of course, this is precisely what Axl suspects — and what we as readers suspect, too. (Or at least, we suspect that even if the boatman does return and carry Axl over to the island, he will not then be reunited with his wife). We suspect it because a series of previous incidents in the novel have built up a belief that only very few couples are allowed to cross to the island together — and so the boatman’s assurances that his questions are merely “custom” or “tradition” ring false (308).
The Buried Giant also suggests that the boatman himself is a quasi-supernatural figure — and this, too, may be a reason to read his narration cautiously. We see him early on “listening intently to something occurring on the other side” — and that other side, while indefinite, seems to refer to something more than just the exterior of the villa (35). He’s not presented as a malevolent figure so much as a mysterious one: he’s in this world but not of it, and he’s unmoved by matters of the heart. Indeed, he seems to see Axl and Beatrice — our beloved protagonists — as primarily aesthetic figures. When they first enter the ruined villa, the narrator describes their movements thus: “it was almost as if, coming across a picture and stepping inside it, they had been compelled to become painted figures” (35). At the novel’s end, as the couple once again approach through the rain, he asks “could they perform the task more slowly were they painted figures in a picture?” (302). The curious repetition creates a sense of distance between the boatman and Axl and Beatrice, a distance enhanced by the eerie, dream-like quality of both the ruined villa and the cove near the island.
For my purposes, the most interesting aspect of this supernatural quality is the boatman’s flexible relation to time. In the beginning of the novel, he seems to speak from something close to a present-day moment, looking back over centuries to tell Axl and Beatrice’s story. When the two visit a Saxon village, for instance, the narrator observes that the view from the village walls “may not have differed so greatly from one to be had from the high windows of an English country house today” (80). When exactly we should locate this “today” is left unclear — but the reference to country houses suggests that it’s quite a bit later than the 5th century world in which Axl and Beatrice’s story unfolds. Yet in the novel’s final chapter, we discover that the boatman has been a participant in this story all along: he knows Axl and Beatrice personally, as it were. What’s more, an early scene in a ruined villa suggests that the boatman grew up during the Roman occupation of Britain — perhaps a hundred years before the story of Axl and Beatrice is set (42). His view of history thus stretches across centuries, possibly across millennia. This transhistorical perspective gives him a certain distance from the events he narrates — a distance underscored by the genteel anthropological tone of the novel’s first few paragraphs.
This perspective is, to state the obvious, not a human perspective. The boatman is able to take the long view, and in doing so, he necessarily lessens his emotional engagement with any individual atrocity. At the same time, death — even violent death — does not have the same meaning for him as it does for a human reader. Death holds neither mystery nor terror for the boatman — instead, it’s the mundane grist of his daily work. The boatman, moreover, does not seem to have family or friends, or in fact any community at all (beyond, possibly, the other boatmen). He has no one to mourn; indeed, he seems unable to fully imagine what it is to mourn a lost loved one. We can imagine how different a novel The Buried Giant might be were it narrated by, for instance, Wistan, whose worldview is profoundly shaped by violence he suffered when he was a boy (and by the hatred of Britons that violence engendered). Wistan’s perspective, though a reader may not share it, is comprehensible. We understand why he feels the way he does, even if we wish he could feel otherwise. In contrast, the boatman’s view of death is, in the most literal descriptive sense, inhuman. Looking at the world through his eyes should — and does — feel a little off.
Our question as readers, then, is how fully we want to take on the boatman’s perspective. Is his implicit privileging of historical amnesia also the novel’s? Or are we nudged to evaluate his perspective more skeptically? Ishiguro’s text certainly asks us to take seriously the possibility that the boatman’s view is the correct one; the fact that the entire novel is framed by his consciousness forces us to spend many hours looking at the world through his eyes. Nevertheless, I do think that Ishiguro ultimately asks us to critique this view of history and the compromises it demands. My reading is grounded in an aspect of the novel’s narrative structure that I have not yet mentioned, and that is its orientation towards an audience. The boatman’s narration is interspersed with periodic asides to an unidentified “you,” asides that initially seems to address the reader. He notes, for instance, that, as a traveler in Axl and Beatrice’s land, “you would have found” mostly small communities similar to theirs (4). A bit later, he explains that the Saxon village would have been a form of housing “more familiar to you” than Axl and Beatrice’s warren (47). In these cases, and others like them, it’s quite easy to assume that the “you” addressed is you, the reader.
As the novel continues, however, it becomes more and more evident that the “you” is broader than simply the individual reader. When describing the Saxon village, for instance, the narrator notes in passing that many of the dwellings are roundhouses, “not so far removed from the kind in which some of you, or perhaps your parents, were brought up” (47). That “some of you” is curious, denoting an audience that, on first reading, we might assume to be the collective group of readers. But after a moment’s thought, that doesn’t seem quite right — for how many of Ishiguro’s readers (or their parents) were brought up in roundhouses?
Lest we take the roundhouse comment as a throwaway line, Ishiguro quickly returns to this formulation. When Beatrice and Axl enter the Saxon longhouse for a meal, the narrator muses:
Once inside it, you would not have thought this longhouse so different from the sort of rustic canteen many of you will have experienced in one institution or another … its main difference from a modern facility would have been the dominating presence of hay (73, emphasis mine)
The phrase “many of you” preserves the sense that the narrator is addressing a group — yet the references to “a modern facility” and especially to “one institution or another” seem to indicate fairly clearly that we are no longer in roundhouse territory. Reading these two references together is even more puzzling, for what group of listeners might include both those who grew up in roundhouses, and those who grew up with access to “modern facilities”?
The mystery of what sort of audience might encompass such diverse listeners is finally resolved at the start of Chapter 15. The chapter’s opening is worth quoting in full:
Some of you will have fine monuments by which the living may remember the evil done to you. Some of you will have only crude wooden crosses or painted rocks, while yet others of you must remain hidden in the shadows of history. You are in any case part of an ancient procession, and so it is always possible the giant’s cairn was erected to mark the site of some such tragedy long ago when young innocents were slaughtered in war… (267)
The boatman is speaking here to the dead. Indeed, they seem to be quite a specific group of the dead: the victims of atrocity, an “ancient procession” that stretches across millennia (267). Here, finally, is our explication of a collective “you” that can encompass those raised in roundhouses and those raised in modern facilities — those whose graves are marked by “fine monuments” as well as those whose graves are marked by “crude wooden crosses,” or “painted rocks,” or those whose graves remain unknown and unmarked (267).
The fact that the novel’s “you” is here identified with the dead does not, of course, undo the earlier sense that the novel is addressed to you, the reader. Instead, the two senses of “you” are layered over each other, inviting the reader to identify not with the boatman, but with the victims of atrocity. This mode of address invites us to notice all the ways in which our views might diverge from the boatman’s — might in fact be more in tune with the position of the dead, and the position of those who mourn them. We readers can die — unlike the boatman. We readers can mourn — unlike the boatman. And though we may possess historical knowledge that spans the centuries, our affective and intellectual ties are usually concentrated around a small slice of that history.
Perhaps most importantly, we readers can “remember the evil done” to our family and friends (267). The boatman’s phrase suggests that remembering atrocity is a primary duty (or, at any rate, a primary occupation) for those who survive it. It is no coincidence, then, that Wistan is the character obsessed with recovering traumatic memory, consequences be damned. For those whose loved ones are the casualties of violence, the boatman’s tendency to frame atrocity in terms of a better future to come seems irrelevant, if not entirely wrongheaded. They are concerned with their personal loss and the particular grief that springs from it. In positioning the reader as one of these people, Ishiguro invites us to consider the ways in which our ability to take the long view may be limited by our own parochial affections and wounds. The effect is not to suggest that the boatman’s impersonal view is wrong in itself, but rather to suggest that it’s one that actual wounded humans are incapable of consistently occupying.
Another significant aspect of Ishiguro’s use of audience is the way it invites us, as readers, to render judgement on the boatman’s story. We typically imagine that the narrator of a story is in a position of greater power than his audience — yet in The Buried Giant, the boatman’s power ultimately resides in his status as listener. His duty is to listen to his passengers’ stories, and to judge them. A great deal rests on his judgement — including the emotional weight of the novel’s ending, which is produced by the boatman’s refusal to carry Axl and Beatrice together across the water. So in framing the novel as a story told by the boatman to the dead, Ishiguro flips the script we expect; it is now the boatman whose tale will be judged. And because that elastic “you” addresses the reader along with the dead, Ishiguro puts us, too, in the position of authority.
The novel thus implicitly asks us to evaluate the merits of the story we’ve been told. In doing so, Ishiguro does not necessarily suggest that what I have framed as the boatman’s bias toward forgetting is an untenable or ethically dubious position. But he does ask us notice the ways in which this view depends on a certain distance from the events narrated — to notice that there are other ways of telling Axl and Beatrice’s story, which might urge other ethical responses. Ultimately, the audience’s presence in the novel suggests that human judgment matters, and that humans — with our parochial affections, our families, our tribes — may not be able to consistently look at our world through the boatman’s eyes. In the end, we’re asked to consider not only to what extent we should adopt the boatman’s perspective, but to what extent we can.
Jess Engebretson is a graduate student in Columbia University’s Department of English & Comparative Literature, and a New York-based audio producer.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Buried Giant. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. Print.
 Though Ishiguro never explicitly identifies Beatrice’s final crossing with her death, the scene’s mythological resonances and the novel’s consistent association of water with death make this reading hard to avoid.
 While we don’t have to read the two boatmen as exactly the same person — there seems to be a fraternity of boatman, all doing the same work — Ishiguro’s repetitions underscore a strong resonance between the two. The boatman in the villa is described first as “unusually tall” with a “smoothly bald” head; in the final chapter the boatman is “tall” with a “shining head” (34, 306). The boatman in the villa greets Axl and Beatrice with “come in further friends, or you will not stay dry;” the boatman in the cove says, during another rainstorm, “come friends, hurry and take shelter” (35, 302). “I’m a humble boatman” is his introduction in the villa; at the novel’s end, he repeats “I’m just a humble boatman” (37, 307). In the villa, he describes the island as “a place of strange qualities;” in the final chapter, Beatrice echoes exactly this phrase (39, 306). And, in response to her questions, the boatman says in both meetings “it’s not for me to talk of such matters” (43, 307). These emphatic repetitions make it difficult not to read the two boatmen as deeply connected to each other, perhaps in a way not easily articulable in terms of human notions of personhood and individuality. For these reasons, I present them here as if they are the same character.
 Roundhouses, it turns out, are a kind of dwelling widespread in Britain in the Bronze and Iron Ages — the late 3rd millennium BC through the Roman conquest in the first century AD. In some areas they continued to be built through the Roman period. This information illuminates Ishiguro’s reference on a couple levels. First, the period in which someone might have grown up in a roundhouse is very, very long — millennia. So identifying people as those who may have been brought up in roundhouses does not isolate a time period with any degree of specificity. What it does tell us, however, is that the narrator is here addressing a group of people who likely lived during or before the time of Axl and Beatrice.