I had a panic attack after I finished the last page of The Buried Giant. It reminded me of my school days, every time after reading a piece of Chinese literature, I was asked to write down the author’s core message. I was usually clueless. Now looking back, I don’t agree with some of the teachers’ understanding of books’ core messages anymore. I also don’t think summarising core messages was the best way to engage children with literature. Although I didn’t learn to enjoy literature in school, I learnt to endure things I didn’t like and carry on regardless, which I recently found a virtue.
The most confusing thing is the ending. One review said, “Even after you have finished the book, many days later, you find you can’t stop thinking about it…” I wonder if it’s an implicit way of saying “I don’t quite get it”. I read long book reviews of the book by the Guardian, Independent, Telegraph and New Yorker. There’s some really deep and academic sounding stuff out there, which confuses me more than the story itself. As an ordinary reader who is nobody, I’ll do my own review and try to make sense of this story.
The story starts slow and I’ve been looking forward to the climax ever since, all the way till the last page (hence the panic attack mentioned earlier). There was no climax! Axl and Beatrice just kept on walking. Their memory did come back to them little by little and they satisfied the boatman who would ferry them onto the island. But they still had to be separated, contrary to what they heard: if they could show the boatman their unusual strong bond of love, they could roam on this island together. It reminded me of a plot in Never Let Me Go from the same author, where the children came to their headmaster and pleaded for life, saying, they heard if they could prove they had souls, they’d be allowed to live and love. But the headmaster said, there was never such a rule. Their only hope was built on a rumour that never existed. It was heartbreaking to see their faces. It was unclear in The Buried Giant. The boatman didn’t say if there was such a rule or not, or why he wouldn’t ferry them together. He even promised to come back for Axl straightaway. But the couple somehow knew they would not ever see each other again, that was why they said such a long and sad farewell. Their words of farewell were the ones of life and death.
Death will separate every one, no matter how close we are when we are alive. We face death on our own.
The women whose husbands were deceptively taken away from them were called “widows”. At the beginning, I thought it was figurative, because they were alone without husbands, but later on I realised it was literal. Their husbands were actually dead. The widows hated boatmen, because they were physically separated from their husbands by the boatmen. They also hated Sir Gwain, because he failed to kill the dragon and put the mist to an end. The mist robbed their memory. The husbands were lost in battles forever, but with memory, at least the wives could commemorate their life and death properly.
The old couple could not remember much at all even of things that happened months or weeks ago, but they sounded certain that their son waited for them in the next village. However, the way in which they repeatedly said to others and to themselves “our son waits for us anxiously” makes me hesitate to believe. They’ve completely no idea where their son is, once Beatrice said, “we don’t remember our son or why he’s away from us”, that’s why they have to convince themselves with something. In film The Lives of Others, the Stasi officer taught his students, if a criminal repeated an event / encounter / incident many times in exactly the same words in a cross-examination, it was very likely that this story was made up. Because a real event, when retold, would have many different details. Axl and Beatrice couldn’t remember what he looked like, why he left them, or where he lived.
The second storyline is about the Saxon warrior, his young comrade and the future of this land. A massacre happened and Saxons vowed revenge. I wonder if he felt sympathetic when he stood against the old and frail Sir Gwain and the dying dragon. The mist cut off the access to memory of tragic history and blanketed the land with fake peace. People could neither choose vengeance nor forgiveness, and so couldn’t move forward either way. The Saxon warrior asks the Saxon boy to promise to hate all Britons regardless. The small affection and gratitude toward Axl and Beatrice, the small doubt and rebellion toward the warrior gave me the hope for the possibility of a future with true peace.
It feels liberating to be able to read a book, tell my true feeling and not worry about what teacher might say.