The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Hardcover, 352 page
Publisher: Faber & Faber (March 2015)
Language: English
Selected by Chiki Sarkar

“I can’t imagine a better novel this year and none that combines gripping storytelling with contemplation as well as this does. This is a novel about knights and dragons and love and memory. I absolutely loved it."—Chiki Sarkar

Kazuo Ishiguro turns to the birth of English literature for his latest masterpiece. Taking the familiar backdrop of Arthurian legend, he focuses on ordinary people dealing with mythic fallout, rather than the knights and princesses, who nonetheless make cameos through the book, not least an elderly Sir Gawain. All the characters suffer from a blurry amnesia that hides telltale signs of savage war and genocide, and across this misty landscape of suppressed pain an elderly couple sets out to find their son.


There was a silence after the boatman stopped talking. Axl remembered later feeling a vague compulsion to reply, but at the same time a sense that the man had spoken to him in a dream and that there was no real obligation to do so. Beatrice too seemed to feel no urge to respond, for her eyes remained on the old woman, who had now taken the knife away from the rabbit’s throat, and was stroking its fur, almost affectionately, with the edge of the blade. Eventually Beatrice said:

“Mistress, I beg you, allow my husband to assist with your rabbit. There’s no call to spill blood in a place such as this, and no basin to catch it. You’ll bring bad luck not only to this honest boatman but to yourself and all other travellers who stray in here seeking shelter. Put that knife away and slaughter the creature gently elsewhere. And what good can come of taunting this man as you do, a hard-working boatman?”

“Let’s not be hasty to speak harshly to this lady, princess,” Axl said gently. “We don’t know what has occurred between these people. This boatman seems honest, but then again, this lady may have just cause to come here and spend her time as she does.”

“You couldn’t have spoken more aptly, sir,” the old woman said. “Do I think this a charming way to spend my fading days? I’d rather be far from here, in the company of my own husband, and it’s because of this boatman I’m now parted from him. My husband was a wise and careful man, sir, and we planned our journey for a long time, talked of it and dreamt of it over many years. And when finally we were ready, and had all we needed, we set off on the road and after several days found the cove from where we could cross to the island. We waited for the ferryman, and in time, saw his boat coming towards us. But as luck would have it, it was this very man here who came to us. See how tall he is. Standing on his boat on the water, against the sky with his long oar, he looked as tall and thin as those players do when they hobble on their stilts. He came to where my husband and I were standing on the rocks and tied his boat. And to this day I don’t know how he did it, but somehow he tricked us. We were too trusting. With the island so near, this boatman took away my husband and left me waiting on the shore, after 40 years and more of our being husband and wife and hardly a day apart. I can’t think how he did it. His voice must have put us in a dream, because before I knew it he was rowing off with my husband and I was still on land. Even then, I didn’t believe it. For who could suspect such cruelty from a boatman? So I waited. I said to myself, it’s simply that the boat cannot take more than one passenger at a time, for the water was unsettled that day, and the sky almost as dark as it is now. I stood there on the rock and watched the boat getting smaller and then a speck. And still I waited, and in time the speck grew larger and it was the boatman coming back to me. I could soon see his head as smooth as a pebble, now with no passenger left in his boat. And I imagined it was my turn and I would soon be with my beloved again. But when he came to where I was waiting, and tied his rope to the pole, he shook his head and refused to take me across. I argued and wept and called to him, but he would not listen. Instead he offered me – such cruelty! – he offered a rabbit he said had been caught in a trap on the island’s shore. He’d brought it to me thinking it a fitting supper for my first evening of solitude. Then seeing there was no one else waiting to be ferried, he pushed away, leaving me weeping on the shore, holding his wretched rabbit. I let it run off into the heather a moment later, for I tell you I had little appetite that evening or for many evenings after. That’s why it is I bring him my own little gift each time I come here. A rabbit for his stew in return for his kindness that day.”

“The rabbit was intended for my own supper that evening,” the boatman’s voice broke in from across the room. “Feeling pity, I gave it to her. It was simple kindness.”

“We know nothing of your affairs, sir,” Beatrice said. “But it does seem a cruel deception to leave this lady alone on the shore that way. What was it made you do such a thing?”

“Good lady, the island this old woman speaks of is no ordinary one. We boatmen have ferried many there over the years, and by now there will be hundreds inhabiting its fields and woods. But it’s a place of strange qualities, and one who arrives there will walk among its greenery and trees in solitude, never seeing another soul. Occasionally on a moonlit night or when a storm’s ready to break, he may sense the presence of his fellow inhabitants. But most days, for each traveller, it’s as though he’s the island’s only resident. I’d happily have ferried this woman, but when she understood she wouldn’t be with her husband, she declared she didn’t care for such solitude and refused to go. I bowed to her decision, as I’m obliged to do, and let her go her own way. The rabbit, as I say, I gave her out of simple kindness. You see how she thanks me for it.”

“This boatman is a sly one,” the old woman said. “He’ll dare to deceive you, even though you’re from the outside. He’ll have you believe every soul roams that island in solitude, but it isn’t true. Would my husband and I have dreamt long years to go to a place like that? The truth is there’s many permitted to cross the water as wedded man and wife to dwell together on the island. Many who roam those same forests and quiet beaches arm in arm. My husband and I knew this. We knew it as children. Good cousins, if you search through your own memories, you’ll remember it to be true even as I speak of it now. We had little inkling as we waited in that cove how cruel a boatman would come over the water to us.”

  • The Buried Giant
  • The Buried Giant