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Memory makes us human but also sometimes inhumane. Trung Bui Viet

What Ishiguro’s Buried Giant tells us about memory

The celebration of Anzac Day and the other, ongoing commemorations of events of the first world war, show how important remembrance is perceived to be to the definition of our nation.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent book The Buried Giant (2015) is a tale, fundamentally, about the blessing and curse of memory. Memory deepens our relations with others but it also breeds regret and resentment. Memory gives us a historical perspective but it also motivates enduring hatred and cycles of violence.

Memory makes us human but also sometimes inhumane.

Philosophers use the technique of constructing an imaginary state of affairs to force us to concentrate on what we usually take for granted. In his novel, Ishiguro adopts a similar strategy by introducing us to a world in which people lack long-term memories.

They are able to carry on their day-to-day affairs; they have roles in their community; they live by habit and convention. But they can’t remember why they live as they do. Their communities have no past. Their memories of each other do not stretch much further than the here and now. A child of a village goes missing for several days and his mother scarcely remembers him when he returns.

Faber & Faber

If this were all that was to it then Ishiguro’s world would be one where people live like animals and are content because they know nothing else. But the main characters of the story – an old Briton couple named Axl and Beatrice – have an intimation of what they are missing.

Their lack of memory is a mist that sometimes lifts sufficiently to give them a glimpse of their past life. They remember they had a son and they set out to find him.

But their journey is also a quest for lost memories. They believe that memory of their life together will bind them together more surely than their affection for each other. They believe that memory can forge a bond so unbreakable that even death will not separate them.

In the course of their journey their memories return piece by piece until all their past is revealed to them. But they discover that it contains betrayal, distrust, loneliness and disappointment as well as times of love and happiness. They gain an understanding of themselves and their relationship. But their memories also separate them from each other.

Each becomes a person with a different story and a separate fate. Memory, Ishiguro is suggesting, condemns us to lonely individuality.

The story of Axl and Beatrice is only part of Ishiguro’s fable about memory. The book is set in an imaginary world where Arthurian legend intersects with early medieval British history. King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table are gone, except for the ageing Sir Gawain.

Britons and Saxon migrants live peacefully together. But this peace depends on the fog of forgetfulness. As the fog lifts, Alix, Beatrice and the others who travel with them remember a bloody time when Britons, following the command of their king, used war and massacre in an effort to ethnically cleanse Saxons from the land.

The return of memory means the return of war. The Saxons will revenge their dead and massacre Britons in return.

Proximity and even friendship is no antidote for enmity fuelled by historical memories. The Saxon warrior, Wistan, who grew up with Britons and befriends Axl and Beatrice, wants his young Saxon companion to swear that he will maintain an undying hatred for Britons.

Eventually we discover that the cause of the fog – although it would spoil the book, perhaps, to reveal it here. The means employed by Ishiguro in his novel are fantastic.

But the intention of making people forget is shared by leaders and regimes that use propaganda, denial and censorship in an attempt to bury deeds of the past.

Though Ishiguro makes us wonder whether remembering is really better than forgetting, he also makes it clear that the answer is irrelevant. Remembering is our fate.

Ishiguro’s story is a historical fantasy but it underlines an important truth: that when nations go to war or commit atrocities they are not merely motivated by greed, religion or some utopian vision.

They want to punish their foes for wrongs they have done or they want to achieve the destiny they think their history has bestowed on them. In former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda and now in the Middle East, violence is fuelled by memory of real or imagined wrongs.

Perhaps the moral of Ishiguro’s tale is that perpetual peace among nations is a goal as unachieveable as Axl and Beatrice’s yearning for an unbreakable union. But if we are not prepared to accept this conclusion then the crucial question is how to avoid the violence and resentment that memory can encourage.

One antidote is simply to tell the truth: that the people of our nation have not always done the right thing, that our armed forces have not always been virtuous and that our history is not blameless.

Owning up to deeds of the past and apologising for them can make an important difference to relationships between communities – as Australia’s recent history shows.

When members of a nation think that anyone who questions their story of their nation’s past is committing a sacrilege they are contributing to the malady that Ishiguro describes.

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